After nearly eight years, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has disposed of the proceedings relating to the ban on unscientific and unregulated mining in Meghalaya. The NGT’s observations that include a number of recommendations including those for restoration of the natural environment are a scathing indictment on the State Government’s deplorable role on a wide gamut of issues. Coal mining was banned in Meghalaya by NGT on April 17, 2014 and several committees were set up to ensure that illegal mining – known as rat-hole mining – did not take place and environmental damages reversed. In July 2019, the Supreme Court, following an appeal by the State Government, lifted the ban on mining subject to compliance to the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 and formulating a mining plan. Regrettably, little has been done by the State Government to honour the Supreme Court mandate. The NGT has further directed that ownership of the task of compliance of the SC judgment should be taken over by the State authorities, to be overseen by an oversight committee. The State Government has been asked not only to prevent unscientific and unregulated mining but also to effectively restore the environment, rehabilitate the victims besides scientific handling of illegally mined coal. Even incidents of crime centring on coal mining is to be dealt with by the OC which will submit periodical reports to various authorities.
Illegal coal mining in Meghalaya has been a thriving business perpetuate with the blessings of powerful vested interest coteries that also involve influential politicians. The prevalence of such unscientific coal mining has over the years caused irreparable harm to the region’s natural environment and unless this is checked with a firm hand, things will turn catastrophic in the days ahead. As these mines are continuously flouting all environment protection laws including environmental discharges, life-giving rivers, cropland and overall biodiversity in the region are bearing its brunt. Then, scant regard is paid to workers’ safety in this highly-hazardous activity, as testified to by the recurring accidental fatalities. That the government authorities continue to look the other way to the rat-hole mining should be evident from the fact that there is no data available on the extent of the mining and nobody knows how many rate hole or box mines are there in the State. The media has been focusing extensively on the issue as have been a few daring activists risking their lives but the authorities look totally unperturbed. Lawlessness and growing crimes in and around mining areas have been the discernible fallout. As rat-hole mining labourers are largely an unorganized lot with immigrants figuring in substantial numbers, there is a lack of formal documentation and hence workplace fatalities and injuries are often understated. Now, the onus is on the Meghalaya Government to put a complete stop on all the illegalities and take effective measures for preservation of the natural environment of the biodiversity-rich scenic State.