THE narratives in the North-eastern region of this country have remained static for nearly five decades. There are few success stories and more tales of violence, extortion and environmental destruction through unregulated mining. There has been no significant shift in the growth rate of the region. Industries, such as tea and oil, established by the British, have made little progress. Of late, cement has become a new export commodity from the region but the mining of limestone in the ecologically fragile hills of Meghalaya has created huge public anxieties.
Recently, the civil society of Nongtalang in the state wrote to Union minister of environment and forests, Jayanti Natarajan, seeking a ban on limestone mining in their area. Nongtalang is a biosphere known to support the luxuriant growth of betel nuts and betel leaves, tropical fruits such as mandarin oranges and bananas native to the Khasi Hills. Above all, the area is home to the pitcher plant, Nepenthes khasiana, and is it&’s only habitat in India. To cruelly destroy such a wealth of environmental flora and fauna is criminal, to say the least. But this has been happening in Meghalaya for the last 40 years ,and it seems like an unstoppable misadventure.
However, what merits discussion is the action of the deputy commissioner of West Jaintia Hills, who, on being approached by the civil society of the Nongtalang area, immediately issued a ban on limestone mining activities. This action has won him plaudits from all quarters. His predecessor, who hung on to his post at the behest of the mining lobby to whom he gave a free rein, had watched in total unconcern the damage unleashed on the coal- and limestone-rich Jaintia Hills region. That deputy commissioner, in fact, colluded with the mining lobby to carry on in his position there. It took the chief minister&’s direct intervention to remove the man from his post; something unheard of except, perhaps, in some of the lawless states of this country. But this just goes to prove how strong and wilful the mining lobby in Meghalaya is. They can make or unmake governments and actually dictate which officer goes and which one stays. Even police officers are posted and transferred at their behest.
Several deputy commissioners posted in the mining areas of the Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills have simply served their tenures doing run-of-the-mill work, closing their eyes to the crime and destruction around them and earning their keep, not so much from executing their administrative responsibilities but by having a share in the mining loot. This is true of police officers, too. Many pay huge amounts to the political dispensation to be allowed to retain their posts in the mining areas. In fact, police officials and their immediate relatives own mines in the coal belts of the state. But the fact that member of Parliament from Shillong constituency Vincent Pala, formerly an engineer with the State Public Works Department and owner of several coalmines to boot, should be in Parliament informs us how vitiated the system here is. Pala has a vested interest in mining. He would, therefore, be against any attempt to regulate mining activities in Meghalaya. Interestingly, after his election in 2009, Pala was made minister of state for water resources. The people of the Jaintia Hills, where he hails from, had high hopes that Pala would bring in experts to help reclaim the toxic rivers of the Jaintia Hills. At least two major rivers ,the Lukha and Lunar, no longer support aquatic life. They are dead rivers. But Pala did nothing during his tenure. When asked why he brought no schemes to rejuvenate the water systems and reclaim deforested catchments, Pala said that the state government was not cooperating in formulating schemes.
In 2010, he lost his job. Evidently he did not deliver, not even to the state and people that elected him to Parliament. During the last assembly elections, Pala played a diabolical role by putting his key players up as candidates in different constituencies. His idea was to get as many of his men to win the 2013 assembly elections so that he could then come in as chief minister.
Pala knows his tenure in Delhi is no longer lucrative and that he has lost his sheen after having lost his job. His actions resulted in the Congress missing an absolute majority in Meghalaya by a whisker. Whereas in the Garo Hills, Mukul Sangma, the present chief minister, got a substantial win and led the election campaign from the front, in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills the Congress was fragmented by petty ambitions. Most of Pala&’s candidates lost the election. However, some coalmine owners were elected to the state legislature, one of them an illiterate thumb impressionist. Their only reason for contesting is to control the government and prevent any adverse legislation against mining from being passed.
Pala&’s gameplan was not lost on the Congress high command. Today, he no longer enjoys the clout he used to have with 10 Janpath. He is not heard or seen in Meghalaya and not even in his home in the Jaintia Hills. Many believe he might not even get the Congress ticket for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But the man is filthy rich. He has made billions from mining and other business deals he has struck since becoming MP and minister. Pala is one of the few MPs who own a Mercedes-Benz in Delhi. Coming from a tribal society, which is known to be egalitarian and where the sources of income of individuals is usually privy to neighbours and acquaintances, he has certainly defied the law of wealth acquisition.
The reason why Pala and other avaricious mine owners have gotten away with no penalties even after wreaking terrifyingly destructive tolls on the environment is because the entire government system colludes with the mining mafia instead of working towards the public good. For decades the environmental activists of Meghalaya have been crying foul and asking for government intervention to stop further defilement of the environment. But the answer they got is that coal mining in Meghalaya is a cottage industry and coalmines are privately owned, hence the government has no control over private property. How can the multibillion-dollar coal exporting industry be called a cottage industry? How can the Union ministry for environment and forests not step in and regulate this obnoxious activity that could soon turn Meghalaya into a desolate ghost state with no drinking water, no fresh air, no forests and perhaps no more living creatures? Are governments, both state and Central, not supposed to protect the larger interests of the people rather than collude with the mining mafia? Can people be left to defend themselves and their own interests while governments look the other way?
The West Jaintia Hills deputy commissioner has shown the way. We can only hope that many more such administrators will step in to protect our only habitat. It would take a gigantic human effort to reverse the horrible effects of mining in these areas but at least a beginning has been made. This is the first instance in recent memory where an official has issued an order to ban mining without batting an eyelid and without resorting to flimsy excuses about the plethora of land tenure systems obtaining in Meghalaya. But above all, without thinking of the consequences of his actions!
We are told the mining mafia is out to get his head on a platter. Let&’s see how the Meghalaya government reacts.
The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be reached at [email protected]