Ongoing efforts to reach victims of a mining disaster in northeastern India have exposed what campaigners say is poor enforcement against such illegal mines.
At least 15 people were trapped when an illegal coal mine in Meghalaya state flooded on December 13. Rescue efforts continue, although relatives said they had lost hope the miners were still alive.
Environmental concerns have led to India imposing bans on the mining of coal, mica and sand, among other minerals. Yet, workers across the country continue to put themselves at risk as illegal mining continues.
“A ban does not mean you close your eyes to (mining). It means you physically protect (natural resources) in some way,” said Sumaira Abdulali, founder of the environmental advocacy group Awaaz Foundation.
“But we never set systems in place. We would prefer for things to remain invisible.” The most recent disaster highlighted the dangers of so-called “rat-hole” mines, where workers crawl into narrow shafts on bamboo ladders to extract low-quality coal.
In Meghalaya, campaigners estimate that 5,000 rat-hole mines continue to function despite a ban imposed in 2014 by India’s environmental court, the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
India’s courts have ordered bans on mining various minerals, but it is up to state authorities to enforce them, according to Niranjan Kumar Singh, a joint secretary in the mining ministry.
Teining Dkhar, commissioner of Meghalaya’s mining and geology department, said his state has no “regulatory mechanism” to enforce bans on illegal mining.
Illegal mining tends to attract workers from around India and neighbouring countries who are lured by the promise of relatively high wages, but are faced with dangerous conditions once they arrive.
Workers in the coal mines are promised about 2,000 rupees ($28.46) per day — more than 10 times the average Indian daily wage, said Angela Rangad of Thma U Rangli-Juki (War of the Oppressed), a collective of democracy and human rights groups.
When the anti-trafficking charity Impulse NGO Network surveyed rat-hole mines in Meghalaya between 2007 and 2013, it found 1,200 children, many of whom were trafficked from Nepal and Bangladesh.
India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a coal miner, with one miner dying every six days on average in 2017, according to government data. — Thomson Reuters Foundation