At least 13 miners are feared dead after they got trapped by flooding in an illegal “rat hole” coal mine in East Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. Although banned, it remains the prevalent procedure for coal mining in Meghalaya. A look at how rat-hole mining is carried out, and why it is dangerous:
What is rat-hole mining?
It involves digging of very small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet high, which workers (often children) enter and extract coal. O P Singh, professor of environmental studies at North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong, told The Indian Express that rat-hole mining is broadly of two types. “In side-cutting procedure, narrow tunnels are dug on the hill slopes and workers go inside until they find the coal seam. The coal seam in hills of Meghalaya is very thin, less than 2 m in most cases,” he said. In the other type of rat-hole mining, called box-cutting, a rectangular opening is made, varying from 10 to 100 sq m, and through that is dug a vertical pit, 100 to 400 feet deep. Once the coal seam is found, rat-hole-sized tunnels are dug horizontally through which workers can extract the coal.
When was it banned, and why?
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned it in 2014, and retained the ban in 2015, on grounds of it being unscientific and unsafe for workers. The state government has appealed the order in the Supreme Court.
Ecology: In their petition to the NGT, Assam’s All Dimasa Students’ Union and the Dima Hasao District Committee complained that rat-hole mining in Meghalaya had caused the water in the Kopili river (it flows through Meghalaya and Assam) to turn acidic. The NGT order quoted a report by Prof Singh: “Entire roadsides in and around mining areas are used for piling of coal which 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.”