HOLDING AN ALMOST PRETTY, sparkling black rock so I could see it up close, Donush Siangshai looked small against the dark mountains of coal stored outside his office in Ladrymbai, where we had come to survey his mining fiefdom one afternoon in December 2010. A modestly dressed and diminutive 44-year-old, Siangshai is an unlikely coal baron: the rough cut of his shiny faux-leather jacket and utterly plebeian baseball cap offer no hint that he pays '2.3 million in taxes and owns more than 100 mines.
Like many mine owners in Meghalaya's coal-rich Jaintia Hills, Siangshai had no proper education; his first job was as a driver. He provided an uncomplicated account of his own success: "When I started, I saved and borrowed money to buy one mine. That one did well, so I went on to buy another one and another one; and I kept going." As the mines multiplied, their output translated into stable capital. Their owner also maintains a small side business selling drinks locally. Siangshai still keeps a low profile, but this belies the sparsely known fact that he is today the most successful mine owner in the area.
Initially reticent, Siangshai was most at ease when talking about God and coal. He patiently ran through the details of his business: of the seven odd kinds of coal, three major grades make up a mining hierarchy. First is B grade or chieh rupieh (named after the site of its provenance), next is brown coal or mukhain (similarly renamed, locally), and third is medium or ‘ordinary coal'—at current prices, '100,000 can buy nine, 12 and 13 tonnes of each variety, respectively. The volumes are huge: a tonne of brown coal consists of 10,000 bricks.
The office, with plywood desks and narrow cupboards, was spread out on the first floor of a large, basic building, above a rough ground floor that we exited via a makeshift walkway before ascending the stairs. Siangshai sat at the helm, at the entrance of a suite of adjoining rooms, flanked by a hole-puncher, bill book and stapler; in the next room, three other men were at large desktop computers, their printers gradually filling files. Operations suggested there was no real hierarchy among the staff—or even among those handling the coal outside. Managers pay and supervise coalmine labour, in any case; mine owners are not directly involved with their organisation—they are veritable sleeping partners.
"It's all in God's hands," Siangshai said, as a way of explaining the order of things, and his own spectacular success; this was hardly an unusual sentiment in the piously Christian Meghalaya, but it suggested the quiet satisfaction of a man quite in control of his own circumstances, someone who had patiently and diligently worked his way to the top, who had provided his own evidence that the meek shall indeed inherit the earth.
There was something of the Gandhian in this man, who sells alcohol but doesn't drink it, who has watched others turn their wealth into flashy cars and plush accoutrements but continues to live modestly even as he sits atop a veritable fortune. Siangshai has austere habits—no rice, no meat, no sugar, a couple of light meals a day—and few vices, showing no inclination to pamper himself, though he has given money to some of the many supplicants who approach him seeking assistance. Stern and god-fearing, he embodies a set of old-school values: you must work hard so that your children can go to school and then work hard themselves—but not as hard as you had to—and prosper in a manner equal to, or surpassing, your strivings on their behalf, so that they might enjoy their wealth more than you did. After all, what else was money for, if not to provide your progeny with a better and more comfortable life than the one you had?
This question—what is money for?—hangs in the air here, for the pine-filled, mine-riddled Jaintia Hills have become an improbable outpost of India's new rich. In outlying settlements near Jowai, the biggest town in these once-verdant, now increasingly friable hills, a formerly hardscrabble elite has accumulated vast personal wealth, about which one hears innumerable tales and rumours to this day. (Some have since moved to Shillong, the state capital, but most have retained their country homes.) "People outside of Jowai tell stories of how mine owners pay people to count their money," a photographer who has been documenting the community for the past year told me. This is likely an exaggeration—though locals say it might once have been true, at least in a few cases—but such hyperbole is evidence of the myths inspired by the mining boom, myths that outsiders relish propagating, in no small part because of the striking disparity between origins and ends. "They have lots of money but not so much education, though the kids are sent to good schools in Shillong or even outside," the photographer commented. "People like all the good things in life: nice cars, jewellery, branded clothes and shoes."
Indeed, mine owners are routinely ridiculed for what one Indian magazine has called their "‘cassata ice cream' villas—front porticos plastered with black and gold bathroom tiles—of nouveau riche fantasy", and frequently criticised for their failure to invest their wealth back into the community. For, even in the Northeast, where the affluent are excessively so, and generally invulnerable to the law, these serendipitously acquired fortunes stand out for their new invincibility. The area's first coal mine, according to local lore, was worked by a lone Marwari way back in the 1970s. By the 1980s, mining had begun in earnest, and boomed wildly in the absence of any regulation, generating incredible success within a rural community whose luckiest speculators swiftly amassed considerable profits. Well in advance of the fortunes generated after liberalisation in the early 1990s, these northeastern mine owners represented an early blossoming of "new money", bringing to mind the mercurial ascent of the West's accidental oil barons.
Several decades on, the mood of a society suddenly flush with fortune still lingers. Showy mine owners' houses stand out even in Shillong, home to prominent Jaintia Hills mine owners like Thomas Lyngdoh and the politician and Meghalaya MLA Nehlang Lyngdoh. Average quarterly bank deposits are said to range from '5 million to '20 million, according to sources intimate with the tight-lipped mine owning community—and this doesn't include the considerable amounts that many mine owners, not overly fond of banks, are said to keep at home. Essentially simple people, they approach mining as a safe gamble, a steady process of plugging away at an identified hotspot until it yields its jackpot.
"It's all a game," said mine owner Herlington Shadap (pronounced "Shut Up"), when I caught him at breakfast at one of his regular tea stalls. A jolly Jaintia whose family was in the mining business, he had branched off into agriculture and a cement factory he owns. Coal was only one of many businesses, but it was still one of the most compelling. Over pork curry and local bread, Shadap broke down the costs of running a mine: oil and petrol for water pumps, a crane or lift, a drilling machine, blasting, water lifting, transport, hire of dumping area where coal is stored before transport, plus labour. According to Shadap, it takes anywhere between '5 million and '8 million to get up and running, and '1.5 million for each foot of drilling. "People take loans," he said, waiving these considerable costs. "Maybe a crore or more." Shrugging his shoulders, he added, "Kya parishaan—koyla ka kaam easy kaam hain. [What difficulty—coal business is easy business.] Just put your supervisor in charge and it happens."
"I don't even know where my mine is," a wizened, middle-aged mine owner named Patti Phawa joked when I met her at an AIDS awareness assembly in a town called Sver. Her husband had owned a mine and when he was unable to run it, being an alcoholic, she had taken over. Her activities had been phased out and her son, the principal of the Ieng Sver Matriculation School in Sver, took care of the business. The mine, as she described it, represented a kind of divine providence: a distant and ever-yielding source of comfort, a necessary ecological evil and an economic boon. "Scientists say Shillong doesn't need science," she declared, devoutly. "We just dig and we find coal."
WITH ITS BUSY MORNING MARKET, Jowai is civilisation for people who live in nearby mining towns. But for all its wealth—on display in numerous goldsmiths' shops and jewellery stores—the town is not well-developed. Although I was told that an affluent local family (not in the mining business) intends to build a good hospital, access to basic healthcare and quality education is sorely lacking, and there has been little evident investment in infrastructure. Near the small central bus stand, shared taxis depart regularly for Shillong; I stayed across the street at a tiny hotel: essentially a couple of spare but unsurprisingly clean rooms (northeasterners are generally fastidious about housework). The hotel is run by a Khasi ex-Mumbaiwala who once lived in the south of Spain and returned because no one else could run the family business.
There is a topsy-turvy quality to the droll, largely unregulated chaos of life in the Northeast. People in Jowai have names like Help Me, Cream Lemon, New York and even, unbelievably, Shit, all of which have become part of local parlance. At the morning market one day, I watched a man walk past in an inverted embrace with a large pink pig that had been tied preciously to his back. Everything closed by 8 pm, and the night had a preternatural quiet, which I heard broken only once—when I heard a Snoop Dogg song playing loudly as I walked alone past a goldsmith's shop. There, two fashionably dressed young men were working after hours.
This was the insular, dustily charming little world that Sannio Siangshai, a local reporter, returned to each evening after spending the day on the road attending press conferences and meeting sources. Sannio's life in Jowai revolved around his family and the local photocopy shop, where he often met other journalists for coffee—a circuit which was briefly extended for a few days to include the Chinese restaurant underneath my hotel, where he touched base with me and his peers.
A sanguine 30-something correspondent for The Shillong Times, Sannio had a wistful eye on the world outside of Jowai. "I would like to start my own magazine," he told me over coffee. "It's either that or mining!" Barely a decade younger than his uncle Donush Siangshai, the area's biggest mine owner, Sannio had resisted the temptation to run his own mine and trained his eye on more writerly pursuits—an aspiration endorsed by his uncle, who urged Sannio to stay away from mining and succeed in the world of letters. Acquainted with or related to almost all of the big mine owners of Meghalaya—his parents were in mining—he was one of the few in his circle to break with his inherited livelihood.
By turns convivial and thoughtful, Sannio was the classic rural reporter, resigned to a less glamorous fate than his peers in the capital and yet proud of his roots here. His ultimate compliment, after I had eaten pork with him at a Jowai market, was, "You're no more than a northeast!" After I returned to Delhi, I often found him on Facebook chat, enquiring about goings-on in the capital, which he hoped to visit soon with his uncle. At one point he asked if I might arrange to have a pair of Ray-Bans sent to him; I sensed it was important to him that they came from outside.
Sannio was guarded at first when it came to mining: the business is still a sensitive issue here, and journalists aren't eager to make enemies of the powerful local mine owners. A reporter like Sannio walked a delicate tightrope: he and his colleagues often covered the negative aspects of mining, and yet he knew intimately how much the mines had improved the lives of many relatives and friends. But one lives intimately with paradox in the Northeast: I met Sannio through his friend and colleague HH Mohrmen, an earnest pastor-journalist-activist who writes frequently about the environmental damage wrought by the mines and yet has many good friends in the mining business.
Pressure from activists and concerned locals over the socioeconomic and ecological impact of intensive mining has escalated in the past few years, leading the state government to contemplate the adoption of proper laws—of which there are none at the moment—to regulate the mining industry. Meghalaya's deputy chief minister, Bindo Lanong, who also holds the mining and geology portfolios, announced in March that a new mining policy would have to address "environmental damage", citing the pollution of major rivers in the Jaintia Hills, though he added that the government did not want to disturb the "customary rights" of tribal people "who have been practicing traditional mining since decades". At present, however, no such legislation has been introduced.
It was through Sannio that I was able to meet some of the area's biggest mine owners, most of whom have never been interviewed by the media; they typically decline any enquiries, unless they're in politics, and even then generally refuse to talk about mining. When I called a few mine owners on my own, none would talk about their businesses, and I was chased away peremptorily when I tried to approach owners at their mines. At one site, the owners denied they had anything to do with the mine, and told me they were simply visiting to tour the area.
Wary of the bad press they have gotten in more than one story about ecological destruction and child labour in the mines, most mine owners weren't eager to talk to inquisitive strangers. But perhaps because visits from outsiders remain rare here, they warmly accepted my presence after I had been personally introduced: they invited me into their homes, offered proposals of marriage to their brothers, and talked openly about their businesses. From the outside, they looked avaricious, short-sighted, selfish, it was true. But all that many were doing was making a living with what was available; there simply aren't enough options in a state that hasn't developed enough alternative occupations. Mining is the shortcut, often a necessary shortcut. Many a teacher and church-goer has been forced to sell out and into mining in the name of betterment, ironically compromising the resources that will govern their children's futures.
THE MINING TOWNS OF 4KM, 7KM, Sutnga, Khliehriat, Kongong (pronounced like "Hong Kong backwards", locals tell me), Ladrymbai, Rymbai and Wahpung twist along a long, bumpy rope of highway outside of Jowai, ploughed by jeeps and trucks capable of challenging the potholed road. The air thrummed with an industrial-level fever as I rode in my hired jeep, in torrential traffic that could stretch an hour's journey into something three times as long. Previously, there had been no road, no cars and little industry, in these parts.
It took about an hour and a half, with a few stops along the way, to get from Jowai to Soo-kilo, known locally as the "Las Vegas of Jaintia Hills". Fittingly, this Jaintia Las Vegas was owned by the wonderfully named Self-Denial Lyngdoh. ("Most people call him ‘Self-Daniel'. Or actually, just ‘Cell'," Sannio said bemusedly.) Lyngdoh, who lives in nearby Sutnga, was reticent about business matters, but curious enough about visitors from outside his purview. He was a gentle, dignified man; more refined and more elegantly dressed than most of the other mine owners I met, though his appearance still didn't comport with preconceptions of how rich businessmen should look. For 16 years, he said, he had worked in the forest department, taking up coal mining only in the early 1990s. At first, he worked with his brother, Richard, and soon outpaced him. "In the beginning, I had only two to three mines," he told me in his Soo-kilo office. Today, his roughly 100 mines produce 2,000 tonnes of coal a month, for a total of 40,000 to 50,000 tonnes a year; multiply that by '5,000 per tonne, and you get '250 million.
Lyngdoh recounted the history of mining in the area, explaining that coal digging in Sutnga began in 1974; as mines are exhausted in one area, he said, new mining hotspots are discovered and excavated. The latest frontier was now in and around Briwar, roughly an hour away, where mining commenced only two or three years ago, and where people are now rushing to acquire land.
As a successful older miner, Lyngdoh was gradually passing the reins to his 23-year-old youngest son, Emerson. "Talk to these people, they've come from Delhi," Self-Denial instructed the young man, who had gelled hair and clothes that seemed to channel Justin Bieber. While we were driving out to Lyngdoh's mines, he called his older son, a student at Sherwood Business School in Delhi, and put me on the phone; the son sounded embarrassed, but the father seemed pleased to have given me a sense of the range of his progeny.
Next, Emerson was assigned to take me home for a look at Sutnga and the Lyngdoh household, and we zipped up the rough road considerably faster in his large luxury car than my rented jeep had managed. Transport remains weak in the Jaintia Hills, starved of buses and serviced mostly by temperamental shared taxis. "Once, we all pooled in and repaired the road from Sutnga to Saprung, but now it's gone bad again," Emerson said, smiling with the pleasure of unexpected company.
Sutnga was refreshingly uncrowded and, after a few days in the overdeveloped parts of these hills, it seemed relatively posh—a veritable suburban Connecticut. Its outskirts, bordering Nongkleh, held a few mines, but this was chiefly a gated community. Full of big, blockbuster houses, Sutnga was a study in contrast with the mean little surrounding towns—in fact, all it had were big, blockbuster houses. Emerson drove us up and down clean, spare inclines fronted by expansive gardens. The homes looked slightly mismatched with the landscape; not particularly appealing aesthetically, yet satisfyingly generous, suggesting a sedate prosperity that was still less flashy than outsiders would expect. All the markers of wealth were here, but they felt slightly dated.
Self-Denial Lyngdoh's house was less ostentatious than its neighbours: it was an older house, and Emerson sheepishly apologised as he ushered me into an upscale living room, decorated with a few fussy ornaments and picture-book paintings. "I want to redo the house," he said, embarrassed. "We have to get new things."
The young man described his work routine. "I wake up at six, and I go once a week to the jungle, to visit the mines. But the managers do most of the work; I have three or four managers." When I asked him what he did for fun, he said he visited his friends—other children of mine owners, all neighbours. He excitedly mentioned an impending visit to Delhi, along with the places he would go when he was there. But he also seemed fairly content with what money afforded him here, even dulled by it. As the youngest son, he was the one who would stay and inherit the business, unless he actively sought out the city like his brother had. As much as he seemed to itch to leave, it wasn't easy to imagine how he would manage such a departure.
IT WAS IN WAPUNG, about 20 km east of Jowai, that the intrepid and now-legendary Marwari dug the first mines in Jaintia Hills, though mining later ebbed here and then ceased altogether; it is now outsourced to nearby jungles. There were only a few mine owners' houses here, looking strikingly out of place sprinkled among the other, more modest homes. One of the fanciest of these houses belonged to Pretty Dkhar: a large, pristine cake of a house, with pink trimmings, which seemed to have been beamed here from suburban Delhi, out of a Kyunki Saas Bhi ... set. A petite failed mine owner-turned-coal trader, Dkhar teaches maths during the day and trades coal on the side. Tangibly industrious—always moving, constantly planning—in her simple traditional jainsen, she was dressed several degrees down from the successful businesswoman she was.
"I'm a mere teacher. I've been working hard for many years, I'm not rich," she insisted, smiling shyly when asked about her good fortune. Since we had been introduced by Sannio—who was Pretty's cousin, and had accompanied a photographer and me on our visit—she happily invited us in, though we had to wait for about 10 minutes for her husband to bring the key. Our visit began, therefore, in her second house, a humble and much smaller dwelling where the couple previously lived and still appeared to spend many of their nights. There, she gave me a small sack of sweet potatoes to cook at home, and sat back against a worn divan in the cosy front room. After arriving at the new house we were swiftly upgraded: I was served tea on a tray with snacks and all the works, in a much larger informal living room, one of two.
Spread over two levels, Pretty's house still smelt new when I visited; huge and airy, it seemed like it could have been assembled yesterday, though she said they had moved in a few months earlier. Full of fake flowers and ornamental extra rooms, it boasted a large plasma TV in the formal living room, along with pictures of the couple's successful son and daughters on foreign jaunts. Their son, who had a bachelor's degree in business management, had also trained in interior design, she explained, and he had designed the house as well, she said with an unabashed pride that seemed reserved only for descriptions of her children.
Pretty's husband Early joined us for tea as she served it, unconsciously refusing her chair to kneel by the table. Early was a pleasant man, tangibly proud of his wife and her resourcefulness. He told me they had tried the route of mine owners earlier, purchasing five mines. "Out of these, only one had coal," he recalled, shrugging. When you buy a coal mine, as Sannio had previously explained, you purchase only the right to dig and not the land itself; conversely, the landowner can build on the property but can't extract coal, an arrangement that lasts until the coal runs out—or the mine owner gives up on searching for it.
The Dhkars moved on from this bit of bad luck, stuck to coal trading and—with a few decades of hard work—had become evidently prosperous. Did they ever consider buying a few more mines, I asked, now that they had the money to do so? They said they preferred the assurance of trading, though it was difficult work compared to the more lucrative gamble of mine owning—not that they judged the gamblers.
As we were shown the Romeo-and-Juliet balconies of each spacious, empty room in the house—"The children are all outside," the Dkhars said several times, with pride—it was as if a big plastic sheet was being lifted, like a sofa-covering being set aside; only, in this case, the entire house was being uncovered. It had taken seven years to build, and everyone had discouraged Pretty from putting it in Wapung, Sannio told me. "Why construct this house in the middle of this place, with nothing around it?" people had asked her, wondering why she had chosen to build out here in the boonies rather than in Shillong.
"I want to build a house in the place where I was born," she had responded. "Let it be a tomb for me after I die." This was an unusually fanciful sentiment for the hardy businesswoman. It took a while to assimilate new wealth, but in Pretty's case it was something to bequeath; it might never completely be hers. The concept of individual wealth, of course, is not obviously northeastern, or even Indian. Still, tiptoeing around the rooms, wowing as she showed us the fittings she had put in, she was clearly still somewhat taken aback by what her own wealth had provided. She was only the caretaker: it was as if this was not her house. The would-be Mumtaz Mahal was shy with her Taj.
4 KM WAS ONE OF THE FIRST MINING OUTPOSTS I encountered on the drive from Jowai to the outlying towns; a cluster of tea stalls and shacks, it was more like a glorified bus stop than a town in its own right. Here, I met a concentration of labourers from Assam and Bihar, Nepal and Bangladesh, who seemed not to have much on their minds beyond the sheer fact of having to be here. They described their crowded accommodations, and the separation from their families, but said they earned more money than they could in the plains. Hard work, they said, but good money, and the prospect of returning home from this local Dubai more prosperous than when they arrived. However, the accompanying debauchery that attends this demographic's presence here through prostitution, alcoholism and drug use, in addition to poor and hazardous working conditions, are noted by Meghalaya's activists as the other side of this coin.
It was on the road from 4 km—my hair, ears and eyes already filling with dust—that I came across Graham Lyngdoh, the only young mine owner I met without an introduction. Lyngdoh was towing a water-storage unit, and I thought he was selling drinking water, which isn't easy to come by along these roads. "No, I'm not selling water," he grinned. "I just came from my mine."
He was a small-time miner who owned a coal depot at Kongong; a greasily-groomed, jeans-wearing 29-year-old who leased one mine and owned another, not much separated him from the men who worked in the mines, except for his fake-leather jacket, his ambition and some family connections. Lyngdoh spoke admiringly, in slightly hushed tones, of his older brother, who owns about 50 mines. "He is doing very well," Lyngdoh said. "He helped me in the beginning with some equipment, small things. But I have to get to a certain level."
He was eager to keep talking with people who had come from Delhi, and said he would call his village headman for permission to take us home—yet another illustration of the balance between new affluence and residual tradition, among people who listened to rap music and drove luxury cars but still called their headman before bringing visitors to the village.
With the headman's blessings, Lyngdoh drove us 20 minutes away to his home in nearby Tuber village, a small, peaceful settlement of houses off the highway. He had said home, but he took us first to his uncle's home, fancier than his own, and more suited to entertaining visitors. His young wife spent most of her time across the road in their own more humble home with their children, and later, Lyngdoh took us to his parents' home, which was uninhabited but could one day be something to fall back on or renovate. The mining community in Jowai seemed to be always in transit from home to home, with upgrades regularly in progress; Lyngdoh pointed out another site nearby where he planned to build a grand home if he struck it rich in the mines. For now, he entertained us in his uncle's living room, where his young cousin, a modern college-going girl, served us tea and fried snacks. In her early 20s, she was part of a new generation who went to college but would be married early, as was natural to family life here, to her suitable-sounding boyfriend.
Lyngdoh had business partners in Punjab, so he had travelled outside Meghalaya; he showed us photographs of an upmarket version of himself, sharply dressed and poised on an airport's moving walkway, stopped in motion while taking the faster route forward. Excited by north Indian culture in the manner of some upwardly mobile northeasterners who seek to fit in with their mainstream counterparts, he showed me pictures of this other life: he had been to Punjabi weddings and gotten down with his Amritsari guy friends. He loved Bollywood movies, and detailed his favourites.
Before we left, he wanted to take us to his favourite spot in the village, promising a scenic finish to our visit. "You will find it very beautiful," he said. On the edge of a grassy slope, indeed, was the real deal: a view of lovely lower-lying lands, which was a treat after the dirty mining town roads, and a reminder of how all of this used to look.
"My favourite is John Abraham, definitely," he said, taking our pictures. Indeed, the young man was a veritable Jaintia John Abraham—and on the lookout for a party. When he took out his wallet, a picture slipped out, in a scene right out of one of his movies; at a quick glance, I noticed the girl was not his much more traditionally-clad wife. "I want to go to Goa," he told me. "Goa, Bombay, they're all fun places. Will you be going soon? Let me know."
WHEN I ARRIVED at the Guwahati airport to fly back to Delhi, an eager young Assamese airline employee helped me through check-in and onto the airport bus, though my ticket didn't warrant any special treatment. As I waited on the bus, he stood and waved for a while, even when the bus came to a halt for a few minutes abruptly after starting up. He watched everyone leaving, for bigger cities, and gave them the enthusiastic farewell of a smaller place. His goodbye was extended embarrassingly long, and his smile seemed to say ‘take me with you', even as he prepared for another round of goodbyes for the next departing flight. He was one of the Northeast's shiny new hopefuls, but he was still separated from great success for now, stuck on the ground while others took off. What could money do for him? Where would it take him? Back home to the mines, or outwards to the rest of the world? How many like him would leave? And what would they return to?
Journalists and well-informed locals in the mining business told me that the coal should last for some 50 years, far longer than the conventional 20-year forecast, though they allow that the thickness of the coal will diminish over time. It is a resource and a way of life with a time limit, like many shortsighted, lucrative human enterprises, but not everyone accepts this. "Will the coal finish soon, like they say?" I had asked Patti Phawa, the older mine owner with utter faith in her mine. "No," she said, shaking her head and smiling sweetly, if darkly, mysteriously. "It will go on and on."