Illegal mines

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The Centre and its agencies do not appear to be serious in tackling the issues of safety of men in mining operations across India. Despite the fact there have been advancements in the mining technology, India, claiming to be the fastest growing economy, continues to employ old, worn out and medieval practices in this field. The disaster in a coal mine at Ksan in Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills district is a grim reminder of the medieval technology being used by the government and its agencies. The accident that took place on December 13, 2018 trapping at least 13 workers is a shocking reminder that India continues to ignore the modern technology in this field. This is happening despite the fact that many such tragedies have taken place in the country during the past many decades. Due to these accidents, India continues to be home to some of worst mine disasters that include Chasnala near Dhanbad in 1975 when close to 370 workers were killed. There is a need to strictly regulate the mining operations across the country to prevent such disasters. The Ksan mine, referred to as a rat hole, was not only allowed to function in violation of not just safety norms, but also a complete prohibition was issued by the National Green Tribunal. This appears to be a clear case of administration not acting to stop unscrupulous operators of the illegal mine from exploiting desperate workers, some of them from Assam, who were willing to work the rat hole tunnels because that is the most remunerative employment available to them. Unregulated and unscientific mining led to a collapse of the chamber and dangerous flooding followed. After disaster came to light, it was incumbent on the Meghalaya government to launch an immediate and effective rescue operation. But it did not possess the equipment to dewater the complex mine quickly, and did not show any urgency in requisitioning it from elsewhere, in spite of the involvement of the National Disaster Response Force. Meghalaya government has no excuse for not closing down such dangerous mines or stop working on them. What the state government can and should do now, jointly with the Assam government wherever required, is to offer adequate compensation and jobs for the next of kin of the workers without any delay. Apart from what has been happening at the accident site, it was unfortunate that both mining operators and the NDRF have expressed their helplessness in tackling disasters of such a nature that required specialized technical knowhow. Though it is a matter of inquiry as to what circumstances led to the disaster, yet the authorities should bear in mind the safety issues of the workers. Already the official inquiries into flooding disasters at approved mines, including Chasnala, have shown serious shortcomings in safety management. It was only two years ago, a landslip at an open cast mine in Goda, Jharkhand, killed 23 people, raising questions about the rigour of the technical assessment done prior to expansion of extraction activity. A study on three big flooding accidents of the past few years conducted and published in 2016 by the IIT-Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, concluded that the official approach of fixing responsibility on human error was flawed, since it did not make an attempt to identify the root cause. There is hardly any evidence to show that pre-mining surveys and safety norms are incorporating such advice. The case of illegal mines being operated by contractors or the government agencies falls in a different category. Unapproved work, which appears to have led to the Meghalaya accident, cannot continue, and employment should be provided to those who are displaced. Illegal mining has been highlighted by activists, but they have become targets of violence by the contractors or members of the mafia operating the mines. In the wake of national attention on this accident, chief minister Conrad Sangma has acknowledged that illegal mining does take place. His government has been found lagging in taking action on the NGT’s directions. The state government cannot escape the responsibility for what has happened at Ksan, and work to prevent such tragedies in future. The centre will do well if a recheck of all illegal mining activity is done to prevent such disasters.