RTI Battles against Illegal Coal Mining in Meghalaya

In July 2012, 15 laborers died trapped in a coal mine in the South Garo Hills. This captured the attention of the Guwahati High Court, which directed the National Green Tribunal to look into the matter. This resulted in the infamous “coal ban” of April 2014, though the Tribunal didn’t issue a blanket restriction. It held, rather, that coal mining in the state had to be better regulated before it could be allowed to continue. Coal mining, as practiced in Meghalaya, is a hazardous business. Hundreds of people, some of them children, have lost their health, their limbs, and occasionally their lives scrabbling within the deep, dark, and narrow tunnels of the “rat hole” mines. Rivers have turned toxic, forests denuded, fertile land stripped barren, and the hills are so pockmarked with mines that landslides and avalanches are commonplace. Yet Meghalaya is an impoverished state that depends on extractive industry— revenues from coal and limestone mining constitute the majority of non-tax revenue in the state— and the ban was unpopular and ultimately unenforceable.

Rescue operations at the illegal coal mine at Ksan, East Jaintia Hills

In December 2018, at least 16 miners were submerged alive in the East Jaintia Hills, the most notorious coal district in the state. This happened while the Supreme Court was considering petitions to set aside the coal ban, and the tragedy made national headlines. Several disaster response teams were mobilized, and they launched the longest rescue mission in the state’s history. They only found two bodies. The Supreme Court finally called off the rescue in July 2019 and directed the state government to compensate the families of the deceased. Earlier that month, it had handed down a judgement that many in the state celebrated as a victory for mining. In reality, however, the Supreme Court only reiterated the Tribunal’s decision, holding that coal mining in the state would resume once the state government established a regulatory framework that took into account both the environmental degradation it causes and the risks it imposes on mine workers.  Why, then, has the judgement been so willfully misconstrued?

For six years, coal mining in Meghalaya has been illegal in the sense that it violates an explicit decree. According to the Supreme Court, however, it had been illegal long before that, in the sense that it ignored the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, which insists that all mines have to be licensed by the state government. No such licenses have ever been issued by the Directorate of Mineral Resources in Meghalaya. The state government has thus been collecting penalties on illegal coal mining for decades without addressing the underlying problem. For a long time, it was popular perception in Meghalaya that the Sixth Schedule somehow exempted coal mining in the state from central law. Yet this was never the official position, as the response to a RTI petition in 2008 revealed. Asked whether national legislation applied in the state, the DMR’s response was an emphatic yes. It further confirmed that no mining licenses had been issued, but the government did not “disturb” mining undertaken by local people. Why did the state government never enforce a law it acknowledged to be valid and applicable?

A Brief Timeline of Events in Coal Case

DATE EVENTS
July 2012 15 coal miners die in the South Garo Hills
December 2012 The Guwahati HC transfers the matter of unregulated coal mining in Meghalaya to the National Green Tribunal
April 2014 NGT bans rat hole mining in Meghalaya.
October 2014 Kropha Committee reports 63 lakh metric tons of extracted coal waiting to be transported in the state, subsequently revised to 77 lakh MT. The NGT expressed surprise at these clearly inflated numbers but allows for transport.
March 2015 NGT notes widespread illegal mining and imposes a 10% fee on transported coal to be deposited in the Meghalaya Restoration and Protection Fund thereafter.
March 2016 NGT issues a moratorium on coal transport.
August 2016 Supreme Court reverses the moratorium on coal transport, extends the transportation period to May 2017.

 

Several subsequent transportation orders are issued, the tenth and final one concluding in June 2019.

December 2018 16 miners drowned in Ksan Mine in East Jaintia Hills District.

 

Supreme Court temporarily halts coal transport, only to allow it again a few months later.

July 2019 Supreme Court judgement directs the state to draft a scientific mining plan and regulate licenses as per the MMDR Act.

The Coal Economy

Coal mining in Meghalaya is technically an “artisanal” activity, which means only that coal seams are so thin and so deep that commercial mining is too unprofitable to sustain. This means that mining land is leased out as smallholdings that are “returned” once the coal is exhausted, with no regard for the consequences on the people who inhabit the dread landscape left behind. Coal dominates the lives of residents long after it has been extracted: a vibrant ecology that once supported farmers and herders and fishermen and hunters is reduced to crumbling hills and polluted springs. Coal robs people of their land and their future— until, in desperation, they know nothing else. Coal mining begets more coal mining, until finally there is nothing left.

Coal mining in the state once was truly artisanal: a small-scale activity undertaken for local consumption. That was until the coal boom of the last few decades, which has made some people so rich they forget anyone else matters. These coal barons are now political barons who hold the state hostage. Understanding how that happened requires a familiarity with how such mining actually works. Land in Meghalaya theoretically belongs to the community, not the state, as do the minerals that lie beneath it. This the Supreme Court recently affirmed. Under the legal edifice established by the Sixth Schedule, land is governed by customary practices, which were meant to be comprehensively codified by the three Autonomous District Councils. They never were.  The resulting chaos has yielded a system ripe for exploitation. Several scholarly studies have demonstrated the alarming privatization of land in Meghalaya, where over the half the population is now landless.

The “community” to whom the land belongs is now a rentier class of absentee landlords, who control their vast coal fields from the cities. Sometimes this is achieved by manipulating the system— by “leasing” mines that officially belong to locals rather than owning them outright— and sometimes by breaking it. Once they have established access, mine-owners typically import labor for the coal season. One study conducted in the South West Khasi Hills in 2013 estimated that 35,000 of 50,000 inhabitants in the area during the mining season were migrant laborers from Nepal and Assam. (The full report of this study, which was undertaken by the North-Eastern Social Research Center in collaboration with Child Aid network, can be found in Volume One of the Citizens’ Report.) The dramatic impact of mining on migration patterns in the region, coupled with the increasing concentration of landholdings and reduced access to common and forest resources, are one likely reason for the deep hostility between “locals” and “outsiders” that has characterized state politics in recent years. The rage is certainly justified, if misdirected. The only people more dispossessed than the people who live on a land blighted by mines are the people who die below it.

Once coal has been mined, it has to be transported, usually to either Assam or Bangladesh. It is here that the state finally steps in— revenue is assessed by the truckload— and it is here that the real money is to be made. The state government receives its revenue at the various state borders and dispatches a quarter of it to the ADC at hand. Money is also exchanged privately: tolls to road and bridge operators, rent to warehouse-owners, bribes to border officials and police offers, protection money to various militias and politicians. Everyone, but everyone, is implicated in the filthy coal economy, and the people who benefit least are the people who own and dig the land beneath which the black gold broods. There are piles of illicit money to be had in the coal exporting business: trucks are smuggled past customs and checkpoints; they are loaded beyond their legal limits and their hauls weighed inaccurately; winding roads are blasted open exclusively for them. After the coal ban, however, the always profitable logistics of coal export bloomed into a shadow economy of mythic proportions.

The Grand Scam of “Extracted” Coal

The NGT banned coal mining in April 2014, when the coal season was winding down. In June, it appointed the Kropha Commission to assess the quantity of coal that had been extracted but not yet exported. According to audit reports, the average amount of coal mined and moved in Meghalaya annually is approximately 60 Lakh Metric Tons. Given the season was nearly over, logically only a small fraction of that amount should have remained in reserve. The committee, however, returned to the NGT with a figure of 77 LMT— suggesting, in keeping with auditors’ warnings, that coal miners generally under-reported their hauls to evade penalties. The NGT allowed this “extracted coal” to be transported, which it assumed would take three months. In the months and years to follow, official estimates of this “extracted” coal climbed steadily, as the chart below demonstrates. The initial transportation interval was also periodically extended for several weeks at a time, first by the NGT and then by the Supreme Court.

In November 2017, three and a half years after the ban, the Supreme Court issued the seventh such order, persuaded by the State Government’s claim that nearly 8 LMT of “extracted” coal still remained in the state. Several RTI petitions were filed in the months after that, none of which verified that number conclusively. An RTI petition filed in May 2018, however, revealed that over 70,000 transport challans were issued by the DMR during the four months following that order, many of them to people who had not identified themselves as miners to the Kropha Committee. Each challan allows for the transport of 9 MT of coal. A little simple arithmetic thus indicates that, by the government’s own account, 1.5 LMT of coal remained in the state after March 2018. The state then “discovered” a fresh cache of 5 LMTs and successfully moved the court for another transportation order. It did so yet again in December 2018, such that it apparently took over two years altogether to transport coal ostensibly left over from a single season of mining.

Beyond that, of course, there is illegal transportation. Local headlines in recent years have been dominated by “seizures” of coal depots that violated the NGT guidelines. Predictably enough, estimates about the quantity of illegal coal seized and/or stored remain disputed. The Meghalaya government alleges that 32 LMT of coal reserves exist in the state; the Katakey Committee, appointed by the NGT, settled on a more conservative estimate of 23 LMT. There have also been innumerable scandals about the theft, counterfeiting, and illicit sales of challan books. As recently as February, the Home Minister was forced to resign his portfolio for being, in the coy language of political operatives, “ineffective at curbing illegal transportation of coal.”

Coal Criminals

Follow the coal trucks in Meghalaya and you follow the money. Agnes Kharshiing and Amita Sangma were doing precisely that when they were brutally attacked by a mob in the East Jaintia Hills in November 2018. The mob was (allegedly) led by Nidamon Chullet, then the President of the Jaintia Hills Truck Owners and Drivers Association. Chullet has been entrenched in the coal mafia for years. In 2012, he ran an illegal market in the Jaintia Hills along with several surrendered militants and was already wanted for murder. He is now a politician with the NPP, the ruling party. The assault case against him drags on, sunk under the weight of an apathetic state, while Chullet is out on bail and appears to be thriving. He was recently publicly thanked by the Chief Minister for his expansive donation to the COVID-19 relief fund. Chullet is by no means unusual. The Citizens’ Report compares electoral affidavits against an official list of mine-owners in Meghalaya acquired from the DMR through RTI petitions. The results are staggering: eleven members of the current assembly are mine-owners, including the Chairman of the Law Commission. So is one of Meghalaya’s two representatives in the Lok Sabha. A similar analysis carried out for District Council members would surely reveal that they have been equally corrupted by the coal lobby.

Agnes Kharshiing – Recuperating from the attack (2019)

It is easy to see why coal interests in Meghalaya are so threatened by people like Agnes Kharshiing. They murdered P.N. Marbaniang, a policeman, simply for doing his job— how much more terrifying must it be to be confronted with someone with such a blazing sense of duty and such persistence? RTI activism is, by definition, a plodding enterprise. One soon learns the truth of the saying that the devil lies with the details, especially when the chasm between the law and the reality is so gaping it appears to be an abyss. The ladder across it is constructed laboriously, one patient enquiry after the next. The citizens’ report was built out of a dozen RTI petitions, filed by different people in different times and places and for different reasons. It was stitched together to offer the Supreme Court a complete account of the dilemma before it. In some ways, the court abdicated its responsibility when it ordered the state government to begin enforcing laws it has ignored for fifty years. This simplistic resolution prolonged the open season on mining that has prevailed since the original “ban,” and it has pushed the coal economy even further into the shadows. Yet perhaps the apex court had little choice, for there is no resolving the problem of mining in Meghalaya until we grapple with the perplexing question of regulating land under the Sixth Schedule. It is to that we will turn next.

 

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