Meghalaya mine disaster: A grim reminder of our ignorance towards the Seven Sisters

On January 4, a septuagenarian in western Assam’s Chirang district sought permission from the Meghalaya government to rappel down a 370-foot coal mine at Ksan in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district. No, Solibar Rahman does not want to go rappeling due to an adrenaline rush. He just wants to search for his son, who has not returned from the mine since December 13, 2018.

Rahman is just a helpless father who is ready to go to any extent to save his son but the question that arises is – It’s been 30 days (and counting) since his son went missing, why isn’t he back yet? What is the government doing?

While the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and National Disaster Rescue Force (NDRF) initially started the rescue operation with limited manpower and machines, Coal India Limited (CIL), the Indian Navy, Kirloskar Brothers Limited and the Odisha fire service joined the rescue operation 15 days later – on December 27.

For those who are living under a rock, here’s a quick recap. The coal mine in Meghalaya got flooded around 8.30 am on December 13, just a few hours after 22 miners went down below to 380 feet to extract more coal. While five miners had a miraculous escape and survived, the rescuers have failed to trace Rahman’s 19-year-old-son Monirul Islam and the rest of the miners who got trapped by the sudden deluge. The 15 workers – which may involve children – are feared to be dead by now due to the delayed rescue operations.

Operation continues to rescue the miners who have been trapped in a mine at Ksan near Lyteiñ River in East Jaintia Hills. (ANI)

According to reports, it took a week for the district commissioner at East Jaintia Hills to send a letter to the Meghalaya government for acquiring powerful pumps and nearly another week went by before Coal India Ltd, the world’s largest coal miner with expertise in operating heavy pumps, got word for help. The high-power pumps arrived three weeks after the mine collapsed. However, no headway could be made in reducing the water levels in the main shaft and the nearby mines due to the malfunctioning of the pumps and fresh seepage. Rescue work is suspended daily at around 5 pm as night falls. All attempts at rescue have gone in vain so far.

The mine at present has 70 feet of water, making it difficult for divers to enter the mine easily. The river is constantly filling the mine, maintaining the water level. The few that managed to conduct search operations recently reported smelling a foul odour underground, which could suggest that the miners have died and that their bodies have begun to decompose, according to a report in The Indian Express newspaper.

The only way for the miners to have survived this is if they are carrying enough food and have found a dry shaft, because the area is burrowed with illegal mines.

Maybe, India could learn a little from the Thailand cave rescue operation – a remarkable story of friendship, human endurance – and the lengths some people will go to save someone else’s child. Twelve boys and their football coach were rescued safely after being trapped in a winding, flooded Tham Luang cave for 17 days in 2018. While it took India 15 days to just acknowledge the Meghalaya incident, Thailand had already rescued eight boys by then. Even India had sent technical experts and equipment to the site. If we can send experts and equipments to Thailand, what’s stopping the Centre to lend a helping hand to our own people? The saddest part is that even our national media woke up very late in the Meghalaya case and they still sound sleepy.

Rescue workers take out equipment after 12 soccer players and their coach were rescued in Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 10, 2018.

We shall also not forget about the West Bengal coal mine rescue in November 1989. Sixty-five miners were saved in 72 hours from the flooded Mahabir mine of Raniganj area in West Bengal using the capsule technique. Jaswant Singh Gill, who was posted as the Additional Chief Mining Engineer there, volunteered to bring the miners back up. After being lowered into the pit, he opened the door of the capsule, helped in the first person he could find and signalled to have the capsule raised. He came out only at the end of the six-hour ordeal. If India could do it in 1989, why not in 2019?

This incident also took me back to 2006 when five-year-old Prince fell into a 60-feet-deep borewell in Kurukshetra, Haryana. The Army coordinated rescue operation was a thumping success. Prince was rescued within 50 hours. After rescuers had managed to establish contact with the child through a tunnel dug from an adjoining well, it took about an hour more before the child could be brought out safely. After Prince was rescued, he was awarded Rs 4 lakh compensation and a job in the Army when he turned 18.

Meanwhile, Meghalaya government announced an interim relief of Rs 1 lakh each to the families of the 15 miners trapped in the mine. Does the government really think that’s enough? Have they forgotten that those who work in Meghalaya’s illegal coal mines risk their lives due to extreme poverty and lack of employment opportunities.

Thousands have lost their lives in Meghalaya in similar cases. While the above mentioned case is last such incident of 2018, 2019 has already witnessed its first. On January 7, two miners were found dead while working inside an illegal ‘rat-hole’ coal mine in East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya.

This recurring situation shows the government’s disregard for the lives of poor people and it also points a finger at the ministers in Meghalaya. The National Green Tribunal had, in 2014, banned “Rat Hole” mining in Meghalaya due to the environmental impact on some rivers downstream. However, this continued unabated despite a massive hue and cry by several NGOs and civil society organisations, which leads one to believe there is a nexus between politicians and the “coal mafia”. The government collecting taxes from the transport of illegally harvested coal also serves as a cruel reminder of the government’s complicity in the tragedy.

Also, it’s extremely disturbing that our Prime Minister – a proud ‘chowkidar’ of the nation – has failed to acknowledge the tragedy. Even though he visited Assam to inaugurate the Bogibeel bridge on December 25, a little detour was ‘unthinkable’. And although Modi claims that his government is dedicated to the poor, this incident seems to make us think otherwise.

PM Narendra Modi during Bigibeel Bridge’s inauguration. (PIB/Twitter)

But the biggest questions that arise from this tragedy are – Why didn’t India awaken to the tragedy on December 13? Why did the reporting of the tragedy gain pace only after the Navy and Coal India Limited got involved? Why do Indians know more about ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ and less about the incident? Are we ignoring the tragedy because it’s Northeast India?

These questions are not based on a whim, but on a trend. For example, when a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern was beaten, gangraped, and tortured in a private bus in south Delhi on December 16, 2012, the incident sparked widespread protests across the nation. Ofcourse, the tragedy deserved the importance it got but so did the gangrape of an 11-year-old girl in Assam in 2018. The Class 5 student was set on fire after being raped by six men – two were minors – when she was alone at home in Dhaniabheti Lalung Gaon in Nagaon district. In both the cases, the victims succumbed to their injuries.

Father (left) and mother (centre) of the December 16 Delhi gangrape victim at a candle light vigil in the capital in 2015. (AP)

These are just a few incidents. There are many others. So, it’s time we give the Seven Sisters of India – Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Tripura, Assam, Manipur and Mizoram – the respect they deserve. It’s time our ministers understand that it’s the people who make them sit where they are. It’s time the government pulls its socks up! It’s time we understand that it doesn’t matter if it’s Northeast or North – we are all Indians!