Was he lying on his back or on his belly? Reports said there was no space for him to stand or squat. And using a pick axe while lying on his belly would have been difficult, if not impossible. But back or belly, it would have been difficult to use both his hands to use the pickaxe. Perhaps he was lying on his sides, using one ankle to support himself while using the other to strike at the coal seam.
It would have been completely dark 350 feet below the ground, barring the feeble ray of light from the torch he would have carried. Did he get a few seconds to stare at the horrible death that rushed to embrace him? Did he hear the roar of the water as the walls caved in and the water surged in? Was he buried first and drowned later?
Who wants to die in a low, cramped tunnel, lying on the ground with the ceiling barely four feet above the face? He possibly would have had no time to sit up, stand or run when the water went rushing in. Mercifully, he would have died in seconds, his lungs giving way to the weight of water.
He was all of 22 years old. A graduate with no job in sight, the work must have appeared lucrative enough. ₹2,000 a day for eight hours of back breaking work. The alternative was to be hired for sundry jobs and get paid ₹ 200 a day. Nobody knew that he lived. Nobody knows now that he is dead.
Saheb, it turned out, was luckier than Manik and Monirul. He was close to the main shaft, pulling a wheelbarrow loaded with coal. The coal would be dumped in the bucket, which, when full, would be hauled up 300 feet above to the surface. But as he reached the clearing, he felt a sudden gust of wind hit him. He could also hear at a distance the gurgling sound of water. There was clearly something wrong.
Saheb raised the alarm and clambered into the bucket, shouting and signaling to be hauled up. The record keeper, who was keeping a count of the buckets of coal going up and three others with him escaped with Saheb.
Minutes later, the shaft was flooded with water from Lytein river which quickly rose to a height of 170 feet. That was on December 13, 2018 and 25 days later on January 7, 2019, there was still no sign of the bodies of the 17 miners (Officially 15) including Manik and Monirul.
But for the fortuitous survival of Saheb, nobody would have even known about the tragedy. Located 45 kilometres from the nearest town, the mine is reached after crossing the meandering Lytein river at a number of points. The mine owner would have simply disappeared and claimed nobody had reported for mining that day.
The families of the deceased (‘trapped’ sounds unrealistically optimistic) are unlikely to receive the kind of hefty compensation that is reserved for victims of mob violence in Uttar Pradesh in case they happen to be employees of the government. In Meghalaya, there does not seem to be any mechanism or even provision to compensate for the lives of miners who may not have even known that mining was illegal.
One of the miners was a class six dropout but another was a graduate. Three of them were locals from East Jaintia Hills while the rest were from Garo Hills and beyond, from Assam. They were all young - the back-breaking work is beyond the old and the middle aged - and had arrived to make a quick buck.
Work seven to eight hours a day for a month, eat what you must, spend as little on yourself as possible, save as much of the ₹2000-3000 a day they were paid — and hopefully go back home with ₹30,000 or so saved.
They would have known it was dangerous work. While many of the rat-hole mines in Meghalaya are not more than 100 feet deep, this one at Ksan was three times as deep. But then life is short, and the money was good. The risk was worth it, they would have thought.
But once they started mining, there was no escape. The money due to them would not be given daily or even weekly. Payments would be random and just enough to keep body and soul together. Those who survived or fell ill, got their dues. Those who chickened out and scooted, left unpaid wages and even their clothes behind.
There would, of course, have been no money, if the Meghalaya government had implemented the ban on coal mining imposed by the National Green Tribunal almost five years ago in April, 2014. But despite resistance by civil society groups and local journalists, ‘illegal’ mining was allowed to continue.
Too much money was involved in coal mining and too many people were making money. So much so that the Meghalaya government approached the Supreme Court in November to lift the ban, arguing that it was causing serious loss of revenue to the government.
The irony was that while the government was allegedly losing money, everybody else was making money. Not just the mine-owners and the miners who risked their lives, but also truckers, coal dealers, police stations and politicians. Even legal coal mining activity in Jharkhand, Odisha or Madhya Pradesh generated enormous amounts of black money. Every truck carrying coal would carry more coal than shown on documents. Often the trucks would carry better quality coal than what the documents suggested. It would then be sold at higher prices.
Every police station on the trucks’ route would claim a cut. And judging by the lavish lifestyle of the SHOs, rumour that postings in these police stations went to the highest bidders gained currency. In fact, long after coal mines were nationalised, scores of colliery managers working for the Coal India Ltd would never bother to withdraw their salary from their bank accounts. They had so much cash every day that their salaries accumulated untouched.
If legitimate coal trade feeds the greed of so many people, one can easily imagine how much an illegal trade — with no obligation to pay royalty, cess or fair wages and with no compulsion to invest on safety or scientific mining — can potentially benefit the stakeholders. That is the reason why coal is known as black gold. Illegal or not, mining and transport of coal can just not be hidden from the public eye. It can never be carried out clandestinely. Not only because some rudimentary hauling system, cranes and pulleys, etc. are required by miners to reach coal seams, but also because transportation of coal cannot but be a public activity, even if it is done in the darkness of the night.
An embarrassed NGT last week imposed a penalty of ₹100 crore on the Meghalaya government for its failure to prevent illegal coal mining. The public uproar following the flooding of the mine at Ksan, 80 kilometres from Shillong, clearly forced the NGT to impose the penalty as a face-saving device. But the penalty will not affect the beneficiaries of the illegal trade. The poor taxpayers will bear the burden even as beneficiaries get away. No action has been taken against anyone so far for overlooking the mining taking place right under the nose of police and mining department officials. This despite telltale evidence that the state government and the district administration were completely unprepared in dealing with the disaster.
Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma’s father was Union Coal Minister and former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Sangma. While there is no evidence that the family has any interest in coal mining, in a small state like Meghalaya, with a population of barely 2.6 million, it is not unlikely that some relatives, friends, neighbours or acquaintances of the Chief Minister would have some stake in the lucrative business.
Indeed, reports suggest that several ministers and legislators in the state are indirectly related to the business. A few weeks before the disaster at Ksan, the Chief Minister was in a denial mode, declaring that there was no illegal coal mining in the state after the ban imposed in 2015. He gave the impression that the coal found dumped on the side of state highways were mined before the ban. The Supreme Court was then persuaded to permit transportation of this allegedly pre-mined stock till January 31.
However, the next date of hearing of the state government’s petition seeking lifting of the ban is scheduled on January 15. Not surprisingly, the Chief Minister has been quoted as saying that banning coal mining was not a solution. Proper regulations were what was needed, he declared, without explaining why the state government has failed to finalise the rules and regulations in the last four years. Nationalisation of the coal mines is an obvious answer. But given the BJP’s aversion to the public sector, and the powerful vested interests involved in mining, it is doubtful if the Supreme Court will discuss the option and the state government, if asked for its view, would agree to it.
Yet, coal mines were nationalised in 1973 precisely under similar circumstances. Private coal mine owners were rapacious, plundering the coal unscientifically and driving the miners to work under physically demanding, even inhuman conditions. Hollowed out mines, after coal was mined, were not stowed properly. Mines were not surveyed. Blueprints, maps and escape routes were not drawn. And miners worked on low wages and high risks.
Nationalisation gave coal mining a fresh lease and miners a new deal. The government invested money in research and development, in importing technology and equipment, in ensuring miners living wages. Proper housing, schools and hospitals were provided and public sector companies under Coal India Ltd, despite the usual corruption and leakages, were successful in reducing accidents and number of fatalities. Today, 90% of India’s coal mining is done from open cast mines, whereas the international average is just 40%. This has reduced the cost of mining as well as reduced chances of accidents which are high in underground mines.
A visionary state government would invite Coal India Ltd to invest in the state and provide enough incentives to make it worthwhile for the coal giant to go into the small state