What Happens To Workers in the Illegal Coal Mines of Meghalaya?

Lad Rymbai, Meghalaya: A 27 year old labourer from Wapungskur village in Khliehriat, East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya says he is desperately seeking government compensation for injuries he suffered in an accident while working in an illegal coal mine in Lad Rymbai last May. He has not received any medical attention since then.

Siswilfor Dkhar received a grievous injury to the upper thigh of his right leg, which came under the impact of a loose boulder while working inside a 600 feet deep ‘box cut’ coal mine. Instead of rushing him to the nearest hospital, Dkhar said, he was left to his own devices.

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Unable to afford medical costs, Dkhar spent four months undergoing treatment from a traditional healer in Mawphlang, a village in East Khasi Hills district. “They applied some ointment to my wounds but it still hasn’t healed,” he said, showing the deep, rotten gash on his thigh. He could only afford to be on painkillers for a month. “Ultimately, it was my traditional healer who told me that I could ask the sarkar (government) for financial help”

On 12 February this year, two police personnel from the Lad Rymbai Outpost paid him a visit at his brother’s place. “They came along with the owner of the coal mine where I had the accident and asked me why I was unnecessarily raising this issue when we can settle the matter here,” Dkhar told me. However, neither the owner nor the police offered any financial help, he added.

Thereafter, he was taken for a medical examination in the nearby primary health centre. On the same day, Dkhar went to the OP and his statement was recorded on camera.

Vivekanand Singh, the Superintendent of Police in East Jaintia hills in Khliehriat, told me that they had received information about Dkhar from a civilian about 10-15 days back. “Based on the complaint, I sent the officer in charge to the village to make an inquiry and later, the boy himself came to the thana along with relatives to give a statement, which was recorded on camera,” said Singh. He said that a suo moto complaint was filed by the police based on the ‘detailed report’ submitted to him by the Officer in Charge. At the time of writing this, I could not obtain a copy of the complaint.

Singh added that while the investigation is underway, the preliminary inquiry into the case revealed that Dkhar was not injured in a mining activity. “He was not a coal labourer and injured his leg long back in a car accident in which his parents also died. Since he could not afford treatment, the wound has flared up and I’m told, has become cancerous,” he said. The ‘claim made by the civilian’, he added, that Dkhar was injured in a mining accident was not found to be true, as ‘he himself said that he was injured in a car accident’.

However, Dkhar maintains that he spoke about the coal mining accident in the video statement recorded by the police. Moreover, he said that the previous accident occurred when he was 10 years old when a speeding truck in Khliehriat hit him. The scar from that accident below his knee, on his left leg, which he showed to me was visibly from an injury several years before.

Dkhar said the mine, which closed down in October, had been in operation since 2018, four years after the National Green Tribunal imposed the ban on all ‘scientific and illegal rat hole mining’ in Meghalaya. Since the accident, he hasn’t been able to go for work and barely gets around with a cane.

After his treatment, he moved into his brother’s home in Musniang, near Lad Rymbai town with his wife and two sons, aged three and one. “My wife has been supporting us but she only manages to make Rs. 300 per week from whatever labour work she can find in the vicinity,” said Dkhar, while he takes care of the children. “After the accident, I became a liability to my in laws’ family. So we had to move out”

On 31 August 2018, the NGT instituted a committee to deal with the issue of restoration of environment affected by coal mining and rehabilitation of victims, who were injured or died while working in the mines. The Supreme Court judgment lifted the NGT ban in July last year but allowed the NGT committee to carry on with their work uninterrupted.

SP Singh told me that wherever claims of injuries received from coal mining accidents were found to be true as verified by the police, those were submitted to the District Commissioner for disbursal under the ‘victim compensation scheme’.

In its sixth interim report submitted to the NGT on 3 December 2019, the committee recommended that the State of Meghalaya should disburse an amount of Rs. 2 lakhs to each of the labourers who received serious injuries while working in an illegal rat hole coal mine. This was accepted by the NGT in an order on 9 January, along with other recommendations of the committee in its fourth, fifth and sixth interim reports.

When asked why it took him this long to seek compensation, Dkhar said that he had not even informed the sardar (coal mine manager) about the accident but someone else informed the police before.

“Three police personnel from Lad Rymbai outpost had come to my place in May last year,” he said. “But they told me that since I was working in an illegal mine, I could not claim any compensation”

First published in the print edition of Imphal Free Press

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