The disappearance of 15 Meghalaya miners reminds us again of the failure of the authority concerned to comply with the National Green Tribunal’s order to impose ban on coal mining due to severe environmental problems. Frequent violations of the NGT’s order and courts’ directive have already eroded the trust of common people in regulatory agencies leading to loss of democratic accountability. It is obvious that there is emergent need of strong enforcement of environmental rules and regulations to promote cleanliness of air, water and soil as the environment is one of the major components of sustainable development. This incident clearly exposed that the NGT order was not practically devised to maintain environmental sustainability through scientific assessments and proper public participation.

The NGT order endorsed the demand of All Dimasa Students Union and the Dima Hazao District Committee that highlighted the current modus operandi of surface mining (primitive Rat-hole mining – nonexistent anywhere else in India due to safety concerns) in the area generates huge quantities of mine spoil or overburden (consolidated and unconsolidated materials overlying the coal seam) in the form of gravel, rock, sand and soil that are dumped over a large area adjacent to the mine pits. In addition, the absence of post-mining treatment and management of mined areas are making the environment more vulnerable to degradation and leading to large-scale land use changes.

Large-scale denudation of forest cover, scarcity of water, pollution of air, water and soil, and degradation of agricultural lands (overburden and acid drainage from coal mining is transforming productive agricultural lands to unproductive wastelands in some parts of northeast India) are some of the conspicuous environmental consequences of coal mining in this area (Jaintia Hills). The production of rice in mine-affected paddy ?elds of Jaintia Hills declined from 1.80 t/ha to 1.50 t/ha within the 5 years from 2007 to 2012 as reported by researchers. Furthermore, the thousands of rat-hole pits, abandoned after coal extraction, fill with water during rainstorms. This water percolates into the groundwater or flows to the rivers.

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The rainwater has percolated through spoil heaps and leached metals, metalloids, and sulfate to receiving streams. Also, the soil eroded in this area ultimately finds its way to the rivers. The rivers flowing through the mining belt are now severely contaminated the rivers with complex, ill-dened mixtures of contaminants due to mining activities as observed in many rivers in Meghalaya and Assam during our visit to these areas.

Many of these contaminants remain elusive. This has raised concern for the environmental safety and sustainability because the model of safe mineral exploration and exploitation under ‘rat-hole’ mining have not been implemented by the coal mine owners despite the increase in the number of reported death of mine workers and deterioration of environment.

Realizing this “alarming situation” in Meghalaya, the court directed the government to ensure that rathole mining/illegal mining and illegal transport of the illegally mined coal is stopped forthwith throughout the state. The court had also directed the Meghalaya government to evolve an appropriate scheme and statutory rules to stop these illegal activities citing constitutional provisions to “protect and improve the environment,” and “in larger public interest”.

The permanent closure of coal mine activity may have wide-ranging repercussions on the families’ income (directly) and employment generation of many people (vendors and contractors) indirectly. Ban on coal mining has invited both social and political disapproval from various stakeholders. Because of the unique “property right clause”, mines are privately owned by the mine owners with unlimited access to mineral exploration and extraction without any regulation. This has attracted businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, and even government officials to associate with coal mining as suggested in many reports. But their role in addressing the key environmental and social issues practically remains elusive.

Regular income of the local people that was ensured from coal mining was jeopardized and many people out of frustration are resorting to criminal activities as reported by the local people. Social unrest and breakdown of the families in the mining area has undervalued the effectiveness of ban on coal mining. The emphasis on economic development and export-oriented growth overshadows the environmental and social risks particularly by owners of the coal mine extracting raw materials from the earth leading to dumping of hazardous solid waste on land and emission of toxic particulate matter and gases. Though NGT ban has addressed key environmental issues and safety of the mine workers including child workers, the livelihood security of mining workers that is a matter of concern has not been addressed. Thereby sustainable development maintaining equilibrium among economic, environmental and social aspects as promised by Government of India has been endangered.

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This dismal sustainable development in India stays well shrouded on the grounds that social angles (for example, human rights, defilement, destitution, youngster mortality, land debasement, absence of education and well-being issues) and their interrelation with financial and environment viewpoints are not considered with due accentuation by the enforcement agencies.

Before issuing closure order, government should rely upon public participation with the aim of more adequately responding to local people’s needs and stakeholders’ concerns. But in practice, these efforts are frequently influenced by the more powerful political and financial actors.

They create a perception of necessity for intervention based on discourses about regional poverty, the need for more employment generation, and the supposed sustainability benefits of these illegal activities. According to government reports, the coal mining industry was among the biggest revenue earners for the state, generating about Rs 700 crore annually, prior to its ban in 2014.

A range of political parties and civil society organizations have also opposed the ban, including the recently formed Movement for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and Livelihood-Meghalaya (MIPRL) which invoked the Sixth Schedule in their opposition to the ban. Despite availability of sound scientific information and strong guidelines to protect environmental components in mining areas as well as safety of the workers, monitoring of environmental components which are the most important components of prudent environment quality management, are not being done especially in the context of designs, reliability, errors and pertinence to focus the behavior of pollutants originating from mining activity and other sources. These deficiencies may be attributed to apathy of political ruler and government to take constructive administrative decision; mindset of scientists; political will and poor governance in national environment sector. We all decry corruption as being the biggest obstacle to national progress.

Obviously corruption at all levels of our polity is a heavy financial burden upon the country. But the final straw that breaks the Indian elephant’s back is not graft, but sheer inefficiency – an almighty innate inability to get it done in a systematic manner with requisite technical input. If this practice continued, people will have no respect for the effort made by the government.

To supplement the above views, it is pertinent to mention that appearance of a striking blue color in river water at the confluence of Lukha and Lunar rivers in Meghalaya, concurrent with fish mortality, irrespective of size or species, reflects the adverse effects of coal and limestone mining on aquatic ecosystems. But the actual cause of fish mortality remained elusive. About one year back with the support of competent authority of Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board, causes of this incident had been explored.

The study revealed that the combined effect of pyrite oxidation on the Lunar River upstream and then mixing of slightly alkaline water, originating from a limestone quarry at the Lunar downstream causes slow precipitation of white particles on the bottom. Further mixing of this water at the confluence with the Lukha River increases the pH from 4.8 to 5.0 and causes further coagulation of aluminosilicate particles (with some calcium and sulfate) as a thin layer of white precipitate on the river bed for 5-6 km downstream. These larger aluminosilicate particles scatter light in the blue spectrum. However further study is required for confirmation of the findings obtained in this study.

NGT should address these socio, political and economic issues while addressing the key environmental issues so that everyone gains from the institutional interference and there is a greater participation from all parties. At the same time rehabilitation efforts have to be speeded up for the families (wage labourers) dependent on mining with priority on both economic and social security. NGT should also look into the issues of resource regulation so that no unscrupulous people hijack the precious resource for individual gain at the cost of mass sufferings. Also efforts should be made to restore the degraded mining area so that a better message and conservation model can be conveyed.

(The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board)