Dec. 20, 2018

The Supreme Court questioned the Centre and the State of Meghalaya that how come lives were lost in rat-hole mines.  This comes after 15 coal miners have been trapped in a flooded coal mine in Meghalaya.

 Meghalaya mining accident:

  • The Meghalaya mining accident happened on 13 December 2018, when miners were trapped in a mine in Lumthari village. Lumthari village is located in Saipung Tehsil of Jaintia Hills district in Meghalaya, India.

  • The tunnel of the mines was flooded with water from the nearby Lytein river, thus cutting off the access. The miners are trapped inside the coal mine at a depth of around 370 feet.

  • While five miners managed to escape, rescue efforts for the remaining 15 are going on.

  • Earlier in 2014, The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned coal mining in Meghalaya, specifically banning mining through the 'rat-hole' technique.

Rat-Hole Mining:

  • Meaning: Rat-hole mining involves digging of very small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet high, which workers (often children) enter and extract coal.

  • Types: Rat-hole mining is broadly of two types –
    • In side-cutting procedure, narrow tunnels are dug on the hill slopes and workers go inside until they find the coal seam. The coal seam in hills of Meghalaya is very thin, less than 2 m in most cases.

    • In box-cutting procedure, a rectangular opening is made, varying from 10 to 100 sq. m, and through that is dug a vertical pit, 100 to 400 feet deep. Once the coal seam is found, rat-hole-sized tunnels are dug horizontally through which workers can extract the coal.

Debate on Rat-Hole Mining:

  • Criticism:
    • The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned it in 2014 on grounds of it being unscientific and unsafe for workers.

    • Ecology: Petitioners from Assam have complained to NGT that rat-hole mining in Meghalaya had caused the water in the Kopili river (it flows through Meghalaya and Assam) to turn acidic.

    • Risk to lives: The NGT also observed that there are number of cases where by virtue of rat-hole mining, during the rainy season, water flooded into the mining areas resulting in death of many individuals including employees/workers.

  • Why is it followed?
    • Although banned, it remains the prevalent procedure for coal mining in Meghalaya.

    • Meghalaya has promulgated a mining policy of 2012, which does not deal with rat-hole mining, but on the contrary, deprecates it. It states: “Small and traditional system of mining by local people in their own land shall not be unnecessarily disturbed.”

    • According to experts, no other method would be economically viable in Meghalaya, where the coal seam is extremely thin. Removal of rocks from the hilly terrain and putting up pillars inside the mine to prevent collapse would be costlier.

    • In Jharkhand, for example, the coal layer is extremely thick. So, open-cast mining can be done.

Mining Deaths: Data

  • According to data provided by the Labour and Employment Ministry in the winter session of Lok Sabha, 377 workers involved in mining of coal, minerals and oil were killed in accidents between 2015 and 2017.

  • Of the 377 deaths, 129 occurred in 2017 alone. As many as 145 died in 2016, while the figure was 103 in 2015.

  • Coal mine deaths:
    • Coal mines have accounted for the highest number of casualties due to accidents in mines. Of the 377, more than half, 210, were killed in coal mines.

    • Jharkhand, which recorded 69 deaths in the three years, has accounted for the highest death of coal mine workers in accidents inside mines.

    • Goda in Jharkhand witnessed one of the biggest open cast mine accidents in 2016 when 23 workers died in December that year.

  • Metal mines death:
    • During the period, 152 persons died in accidents in metal mines across the country.

    • Rajasthan, one of highest mineral producing States in the country, accounted for 48 deaths while Andhra Pradesh recorded 29 deaths.

  • Oil mines death:
    • During this period, 15 deaths were reported in oil mines, most of them occurring in Assam and Gujarat.