Why does no one care about recurring mine accidents in India’s 'resource frontier'- the north-east?
Arunima Sen Gupta
Elbert Hubbard rightly said: “A man is not paid for having a head and hands, but for using them”. But the truth is that there are people dying as a result of using their hand and heads! This is exactly what is happening in the north-eastern states of India and the worse part is that we have no time to understand or address this issue. On 13 December 2018, in a coal mine in Ksan (a district in Meghalaya), 15 mine workers were trapped, out of whom, 5 somehow managed to escape. You will be surprised to know that the release and rescue missions launched by the Indian navy, Indian army, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) as well as other agencies continued till 2nd March 2019. In yet another incident, 4 mine workers died in an illegal mine in Nagaland on March 3, 2019. The tragic incident occurred in the mine located in an isolated village called Yonglok (located in Longleng district) at the border of Nagaland and Assam. They died as a result of inhaling toxic gases. The irony is that even though the National Green Tribunal (formed by an Act of the Parliament of India) had banned all the unchecked or illegal mining in 2014, these shocking incidents continued to be quite common. Even Nagaland has banned illegal mining as per the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, keeping in mind the coal mining accidents in Meghalaya. Khliehriat, which is Meghalaya’s coal trade hub, is the headquarters of East Jaintia Hills district (EJH), which also has the most mineral resources among the eight mining districts of the northeastern State.
According to Balios Swer, president of the Jaintia Coal Miners and Dealers Association, there are about 60,000 mines spread across 360 villages in the EJH. Says environment activist Brian Kharpran Daly of the Meghalaya Adventurers’ Association (MAA): “There are thousands of huge holes, 90-100 m deep, all over the place. They just leave them like that after extracting all the coal. Many children and livestock have fallen in these mines and died. But there are no complaints lodged because the coal barons are too powerful and everyone is scared.”Says Daly: “The whole valley has become acidic, like a desert. Mining has robbed the poor villagers of their farmlands. There are no trees around, hardly any birds, only shrubs that you associate mostly with barren land, as the topsoil has disappeared. Worse, all the water sources in Jaintia Hills are polluted. The toxic cocktail unleashed by coal and limestone mining and the cement plants has turned the rivers either orange-yellow or a sickly blue.” The NGT’s order banning rat-hole mining came after the All Dimasa Students’ Union in neighbouring Assam filed a petition stating that the non-treatment of toxic discharge from the coal mines of Meghalaya was polluting streams and rivers downstream in Assam. Their petition was based on a study by O.P. Singh, a faculty member at the North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital.
Local people believe that mining is a threat to their natural environment, despite the fact that such a resource can boost up their economy, along with the state’s economy. They say mining should be done in a proper scientific and sustainable way, without harming the environment in any way. They also raise a host of questions: Why was there no proper research or fact-checking before the mining operation? What is the indifference for? Why has the government been silent though people have lost their lives? Will the scenario remain the same if these incidents took place in other parts of India? The questions notwithstanding, it is how the everyday life unfolds in the ‘resource frontiers’ of Northeast India. It is an insight into the heartland of a ‘militarised carbon landscape’, into lives built around tea, oil, coal and coated with vernacular ideas of power, status, obligation. In recent times, news about a few government decisions to expand resource extraction in parts of Northeast India has led to significant opposition across a wide spectrum, alleging potential irreparable ecological damage to sensitive biodiversity zones. These include the reported clearance given for open-cast coal mining by the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) inside the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (part of Dehing Patkai elephant reserve), the Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) giving clearance for the extension of drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations by OIL under the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park area (that includes the Maguri-Motapong wetland area considered crucial for migratory birds) and the go-ahead given (and subsequently put on hold) for the Etalin mega hydroelectric project at Dibang valley, Arunachal Pradesh.
Why do these mishaps occur?
The first and foremost reason is that North East India is the forgotten part of the country for many. Starting from the government, to national media and Indian citizens in general, they do not have any idea or any awareness for that matter, about what is happening there. Lack of infrastructure, communication and growth has been the unsolved concerns faced by the seven sister-states always. The government, irrespective of the political party in power, doesn’t give much attention and importance to the region, while other parts of India are moving scurrying towards expansion. The inequity is clear by the fact that Manipur state budget is lower than the yearly financial plan of one single department of the Andhra Pradesh administration. Then, the People’s Republic of China stating an illegitimate imposition on the north-east province, and claiming it to be a part of its own, is also not letting it grow. These are the major reasons which are to a large extent responsible for such tragic incidents. The national media is also quite ignorant in terms of writing or broadcasting the news from North-East India.
Coal mining operates as shadow economy
Despite the presence of coal reserves, commercial mining is not practiced in the North-Eastern regions because of terrain’s unsuitability as well as nature of coal deposits. Open mining cannot be practiced due to the added difficulties. Further, the coal found in North-East contains lots of sulfur. This overall reduces the energy efficiency and therefore this type of coal is categorized as bad quality of coal. Coal-mining has been taking place in Meghalaya since the 1840s, but production accelerated from the 1980s. The Meghalaya government’s latest estimates put the State’s coal reserves at 576.48 million tonnes, though only 133.13 million tonnes are classified as ‘proved’. The coal boom in Meghalaya saw annual production rise from 39,000 tonnes in 1979 to 5 million tonnes in 2014. Unlike open-cast mining in central India, rat-hole mining involves side-cutting — tunnelling in from a hill slope — or digging pits into the hills until miners hit a seam of coal. The tunnels are then made from the bottom of the pit, where the extracted coal is collected and hauled up by cranes. In the shallower ‘traditional’ mines, labourers carried coal in conical bamboo baskets using makeshift wooden stairs. A Citizen’s Report (prepared by civil society groups in Meghalaya and submitted to the Supreme Court a month after activists Agnes Kharshiing and Amita Sangma survived an attack by the ‘coal mafia’ in November) observes that the State’s mineral wealth has been a curse. It says: “Coal mining in Meghalaya operates as a ‘shadow’ economy, wherein district councils, traders’ associations, armed extortionists and insurgents, various tiers of government, border security forces (in the case of exports to Bangladesh), and even weigh bridge and toll gate operators have long operated with legal impunity — that is, until the 2014 NGT ban.” It blames loopholes in the Sixth Schedule and the land tenure system. Miners and local councils have allegedly been using exemptions given to tribal people (under the Sixth Schedule) to justify rampant mining. The government has control over only 5% of Meghalaya’s land, with the rest being either community or privately owned.
On December 2018, the collapse of coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills, trapping at least 15 workers who were still missing and are feared dead, has thrown the spotlight on the “rat-hole mining.” Although banned, it remains the only procedure of coal mining in Meghalaya. A rat-hole mine involves digging of very small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet deep, in which workers, more often children, enter and extract coal. Rat-hole mining is broadly of two types – side-cutting and box-cutting. In backward regions, where there is loss of livelihood, lack of employment opportunities and under-education, people see rat-hole mines as an opportunity to earn daily bread. People with power employ poverty-ridden people to go into the rat-hole mines and dug out coal. A major portion of these employees are children, who are preferred because of their thin body shape and ease to access depths.
This practice has become very popular in Meghalaya. Here there are majorly hilly terrains, which make coal mining very difficult. Also, digging a big hole is very difficult because big hole demands pillars and support. Since it’s a good opportunity to extract coal from there for big as well as local investors, because it involves less investment and good returns, people are drawn towards this dangerous business. The practice is to not make any professional tunnels, install pillars, and ensure safety measures, but to just dig a small tunnel and put children and labor to work. Since rat-hole mining is illegal, it is practiced behind closed doors, and therefore, no one is ready to invest in infrastructure development. Coal is stored near rivers because of shortage of space which leads to pollution around water bodies. The water in River Kopili (flows through Meghalaya and Assam) has turned acidic. The entire roadsides in and around mining areas are for piling of coal. This is a major source of air, water and soil pollution. Off road movement of trucks and other vehicles in the area causes further damage to the ecology of the area. Due to rat-hole mining, during rainy season, water gets flooded into the mining areas resulting in death of many workers due to suffocation and hunger. If water has seeped into the cave, the worker can enter only after the water is pumped out. Few private players and some people who do invest in such mining are taking the help of Constitution to right their wrongs. They say, “Constitution’s 6th Schedule intends to protect the communities’ ownership over its land and autonomy and consent over its nature of use.” The ongoing coal mining in Meghalaya was a corruption of this Constitutional Provision. Private individuals with interests in earning monetary benefits from minerals under the land are engaged in coal mining. They are attempting to legitimize this act by claiming immunity through tribal autonomy over land ownership. In coming days, controversy over rat-hole mining in Meghalaya will increase and Central and State Government must work together in an amicable manner to stop such pathetic dehumanizing practice.
An inevitable product of ‘capitalist globalisation’
“Take these to your queen and tell her these are the weapons we fight with. You cannot enter Thibet; it is against the order of the Chinese Government. Go back, or we will kill you,” a Mishimi chief told Thomas Thornvill Cooper after presenting him a Dao (native sword) and spear. Cooper was the first Englishman to extensively tour the Mishmi Hills and who was exploring a trade route from India to China via the Mishimi region (present Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh). Although the ‘tragic rebellion’ didn’t hold in the long run, this episode, in essence, reflects a lot on the dynamics that were to unfold in the region in the years to come. The 19th-century ‘discovery’ of oil, tea and coal in the eastern Himalayan foothills had a profound impact on the life in the region that endures the passages of time. With these ‘discoveries’, the region turned into one of the most important eastern frontier outposts of the British India empire. Due to its locational importance and resource capacity, the region also became a critical zone in the events of the Second World War. One needs to remember that the oil ‘discovered’ in Digboi, leading to pioneering ventures in commercial oil in the subcontinent, was marketed under the brand ‘Burmah Oil Company’ (BOC). The technical geological category ‘Assam Arakan basin’ still persists in the dictions of oil exploration in the region. Thus, in the imagination of the ‘empires’ (past and present), the cartographical region transforms into an extended resource frontier. In this way, the region one calls as Northeast India today is not unfamiliar to global trade, historically speaking. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), the coal town of Ledo, at the heart of the recent protests, is also the starting point of the historic Stilwell road (locally known as Ledo road) from the Indian side, a road that connects Assam of India with Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province of China, passing through Northern Myanmar. While the Second World War heritage of the road is well known, what is not equally known is that the route has also been a major preferred route of migratory waves from across the Southeast Asian continent. The road and the surrounding borderland areas remains a major artery of nostalgia, historical bonds and goodwill for people living across both sides of the borders.
However, in the present circumstances, one is not sure whether the ‘Act East Policy’ echoes similar sentiments of ‘connectivity’. Several measures have been undertaken under the aegis of the Act East policy to ‘connect’ Northeast India with Southeast Asia. The era of ‘the New Great Game’ played out between China and India has been a key influence on most of the geopolitical development in South and Southeast Asia, and this dynamic seems to be having potential environmental impacts for the northeastern region, with competing endeavours between India and China to strengthen respective user rights of the shared rivers by making dams, etc. As recent examples from Southeast Asia (forest zones of Indonesia, Laos) show, frontier spaces can be actively ‘peripheralised’ even while being integrated into a globalised economy. Thus, the important question to ask is what role does the coal from the rainforests, electricity from the mountain rivers, and oil from the forest wells, play in these ‘grand’ schematics of the nations? After all, the state of nature reveals a lot on the nature of the state.
An inherently political ecology
Students from different universities and colleges of the region (and also students from the region based in various institutions outside their home states) have taken the initiative to raise awareness and create wider public opinion against the proposed government decisions. The proactive role played by the students and young people of the region takes one back to a terrain of continuous struggles, that needs to be understood and made sense of. After all, slogans like ‘We will give our blood, but not our oil’ have been a hallmark of tumultuous social movements in the region for the past many decades. Fast forwarding to few decades in 2003, one comes across another case when the Netherlands-based Premier Oil Company enters an agreement with Hindustan Oil Exploration Company (HOEC) to explore for oil around Joypur Dehing Patkai forest ranges and withdraws later from the venture after intense local protests. The recent episodes also must be read in the context of the various social movements going on in these regions for the past many decades for land rights, against big dams, many localised resistance against mining of coal, oil, natural gas. As positions taken by student-youth organisations like the All Assam Students Union, Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad as well as by proscribed militant organisations like ULFA (Independent) show, natural resources and, as an extension, ecological identities are considered by them as an appendage to the ‘ethno-nationalist’ aspirations, they ‘belong’ to a people. What is ‘natural’ is taken to be an extension of the ‘national’ at different levels, says Kaustubh Deka, assistant professor, Dibrugarh University, Assam.
However, despite the decades of protest and activism, HOEC remains active in the area and besides it, Assam Petrochemicals Limited as well as North Eastern Coalfields (NEC) have sought permission in recent times to either expand their operations or initiate new operations around these ecologically sensitive zones. The stories about long lines of coal-laden trucks without number plate moving out every night from the coal towns, the parade of trucks ‘mysteriously’ not stopped at any check posts, local scribes reporting on them ‘disappearing’, syndicates based on ‘donations’ thriving, stories such as these coming out incessantly over the years from these places remind one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional town of Macondo, a space existing in the perilous ruins of capitalism. It must compel one to take a closer look on how a complex web of resource extraction, militarisation, aspirations and class formation makes up spaces like these. Amidst this seemingly ‘confusing’ scenario, what has become increasingly evident is that nature is no more a passive backdrop to political events. Furthermore, there need to be efforts to relate environmental change to aspects of political economy, cultural politics and social transformation. This also needs to be extended to understand the continuous (at times contradictory) engagement of conservationist NGOs in this region with various official schemes and policies on the environmental questions, to see how the resource frontier is also a ‘salvage frontier’, says a forest official on condition of anonymity: The Amazon forests are a prime example of this, where “plans were set in motion to save the environment in the process of destroying it. Where making, saving, and destroying resources are utterly mixed up, where zones of conservation, production, and resource sacrifice overlap almost fully, and canonical time frames of nature’s study, use, and preservation are reversed, conflated, and confused,” he adds.
Prime focus of state authority
The rainforests of Dehing Patkai, aquatic biosphere of Dibru Saikhowa and the mountain scapes of Dibang Valley are a prime example as to how “the borderlands in Asia tend to be peripheral to the centres of state power, while they are at the same time a prime locus for the enactment and realisation of state authority” (Asian Borderlands Research Network, 2016). In cases like India resources in these ‘frontiers spaces’ are regulated both in the name of ‘national interest’ as well as ‘national security’, often collapsed into one.
India holds the fifth-largest coal reserves in the world
January 2020 saw the country’s environment ministry clear the way for 14 coal mining and processing projects, which will help the country achieve production of around 750 million tonnes for the next fiscal year. This could be a stepping stone to its next goal of achieving one billion tonnes by 2024. It must be mentioned here that mining was started in the year 1774 by the British East India Company. States like Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Meghalaya, Assam, Nagaland, Bihar, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh have the estimated coal reserves. However, there are new changes and modifications going on. A report from 31 March 2018, estimated the subcontinent possessed just over 319 billion tonnes of coal reserves. The 2018–19 fiscal year saw India’s total coal production amount to about 730 million tonnes, which is combined with imports of 240 million tonnes — making India the world’s second-biggest importer of the fossil fuel. More than 70% of the country’s electricity generation is coal-based, with 70% of the fuel coming from the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. About 98% of the fuel in India is Gondwana coal — the oldest kind of the fossil fuel, formed around 250 million years ago.
Top five states with the largest coal reserves
1. Jharkhand: Coal reserves 83.15 billion tones: Located in north-east India, the state of Jharkhand top the list of India’s coal reserves — at more than 26% — and production. The state’s main coal mining centres are Jharia, Bokaro, Auranga, Giridh, Dhanbad, Ramgarh, Karanpur and Hutar. Most of these coal fields are located in a narrow belt that runs east to west. The Jharia coalfield, which is located south of Dhanbad, is India’s oldest and richest coalfield with the best of bituminous coal in its reserves. The total coal reserves in Jharkhand are estimated to be 83.15 billion tonnes.
2. Odisha: Coal reserves 79.30 billion tones: Second on the list for coal reserves is the state of Odisha. Situated on the east coast of India, it has more than 24% of the country’s total reserves and is responsible for about 15% of India’s total coal production. A majority of the state’s coal reserves lie in the Dhenkanal, Sambalpur and Sundargarh districts. Odisha’s biggest coalfield, Talchar coalfield, covers an area of about 500 square kilometers (km2). Estimated coal deposits in Odisha amount to about 79.30 billion tonnes.
3. Chhattisgarh: Coal reserves 57 billion tones: The central Indian state of Chhattisgarh holds about 17% of the country’s coal deposits and is the third-largest in terms of coal reserves. Although the biggest coalfield in Chhattisgarh is the Hasdeo-Arand coalfield, with an area of 1878km2, 1502km2 comprise forest area. The next-largest Korba coalfield lies over an area of 530km2 in the Hasdeo river valley. Other major coalfields in Chhattisgarh include Chirmiri, Johilla and Jhimli. The state’s coal reserves add up to a total of more than 57 billion tonnes.
4. West Bengal: Coal reserves 31.67 billion tones: Fourth in the list comes the eastern state of West Bengal, home to about 11% of India’s total coal reserves. West Bengal’s most important reserve and mining field is the Raniganj coalfield, which covers over 185km2 in the Bardhman and Birbhum districts. The deposits here contain 50-65% carbon, making the quality of coal some of the best in the country. The districts covering West Bengal’s coal deposits are Darjeeling, Bardhman, Jalpaiguri, Bankura and Puruliya. Total coal reserves add up to 31.67 billion tonnes.
5. Madhya Pradesh: Coal reserves 27.99 billion tones: The fifth-largest coal-bearing state in India is the central state of Madhya Pradesh, where coal deposits add up to about 8% of the country’s total. The state’s main coal reserves are Singrauli, Satpura, Muhpani, Sohagpur and Pench Kanhan, with Singrauli being Madhya Pradesh’s largest coalfield. Its main function is to provide coal for two thermal power plants located at Singrauli and Obra. Total coal reserves in Madhya Pradesh amount to 27.99 billion tonnes.