Coal Country

A journey inside Meghalaya’s coal-mining towns

31 October 2019
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On 3 July, the Supreme Court allowed legal coal mining to take place in the north eastern state of Meghalaya. In 2014, the National Green Tribunal, a judicial body dealing with environmental issues, had banned rat-hole mining in the state, terming it “illegal” and “unscientific.” This is a labour-intensive form of mining which involves digging narrow “rat-hole” sized tunnels, usually three to four-feet high, that workers enter to extract coal. The NGT said that the ban was in the interest of the safety of workers and the protection of the environment. The NGT order effectively halted coal mining in Meghalaya.

While allowing mining to resume, the Supreme Court added that miners must adhere to central mining laws and that all mining must take place legally. It mandated miners to obtain a mining lease and to get environmental clearance from the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board. The apex court also recognised the miners’ right to private ownership of their land and mineral resources in the tribal state.

A month earlier, in June, along with the photographer Prakash Bhuyan, I drove from Jowai in the West Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya towards the coal-mining towns of Lad Rymbai and Khliehriat in the eastern side of the state. The sights gradually transformed from picturesque sun-kissed green hills to that of black smoke billowing over the skies. After we passed the toll gate of National Highway 6 on the Jowai-Ratacherra road, heaps of coal slowly started to appear by the wayside. Hidden under tarpaulin sheets at first, the heaps soon turned into mounds of what is known as Meghalaya’s “black gold” on either side of the highway. With trucks whizzing past several garages and automobile supply stores, these desolate towns stood in stark contrast to the lush rolling hills surrounding them.

British officials discovered coal deposits in the state during the early nineteenth century, when commercial exploitation first began. Large coal fields, however, remained inaccessible due to geographical complexity. Then, community-based mining—where members of a large extended family or village extracted coal mostly for sustenance—became a practice in the erstwhile colonial Assam which included the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills. But it was after Meghalaya achieved full statehood in 1972 that the mining scaled up commercially. The birth of a new state brought into effect the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution which gives executive powers to autonomous district councils for administration in tribal regions. With little interference and oversight from the state government, rich coal barons acquired both community and agricultural land for mining.

Far from the gaze of the over ten lakh tourists that visit Meghalaya every year, the coal-rich hills receive visitors of a different kind—business contractors, transporters, labourers from the nearby West Garo hills, Assam, Nepal and Bangladesh, and children as young as seven years old, who are employed in the rat-hole mines. In 2007, while investigating cross-border sex trafficking from the area, the activist Hasina Kharbhih and her team discovered that several children were recruited for the mines. Kharbhih is the founder of Impulse NGO Network, a Shillong-based nonprofit. Impulse Network estimates that there are at least seventy thousand child labourers employed in the rat-hole mines—a claim that the state government and local media have contested. In 2014, Impulse Network, along with the All Dimasa Students Union, a civil-society organisation in Assam, filed a petition in the NGT requesting a ban on rat-hole mining in Meghalaya, which resulted in the NGT order.

Prakash Bhuyan is a photographer based in Assam. He studied photography from the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute.