Yet again a coal mine tragedy takes place in Meghalaya and this time it is in West Khasi Hills district. But the state government does not want to say enough is enough on illegal coal mining and transportation as it is an open secret who benefits from the vicious cycle, which killed several poor mine workers and is irreversibly destroying the environment, and how the elections are won and will be won in 2023.
Why a government should worry about the demands from several quarters for an investigation by the CBI or judicial probe into the incident?
Two women activists — Agnes Kharshiing and Amita Sangma — suffered at the hands of coal barons led by NPP leader Nidamon Chullet in November 2018 and the NPP-led MDA government conveniently dumped the demands by the two victims and others for an impartial probe into the matter.
The NPP state president and Rajya Sabha member, WR Kharlukhi, who is otherwise vocal on other issues, including recognition to Khasi language in the state, took shelter in the legal adage “unless found guilty, the person is innocent” on the question of taking action against Nidamon.
In the absence of government action, a providential reward for Agnes and Amita came in the form of Nidamon getting life imprisonment in a murder case though not related to the coal case.
The worst interference was by way of scuttling the CBI probe order of the first state Lokayukta PK Musahary by the state government on the pretext of some reason or the other. It even moved the high court against the Lokayukta order, ignoring the positive aspect of the decision.
In a related illegal coal mining case, the High Court of Meghalaya recently expressed dissatisfaction over the apathy of the government in dealing with the matter.
If the government would have initiated a fair probe other than the ritual police investigations, the MDA should have cleansed itself of all impunities and it should have been free from guilt or criticism.
The same government that had instituted three commissions of inquiry on the death of Cherishstarfield Thangkhiew, rice diversion and MeECL anomalies, should not have any problem in having one more impartial probe panel on the coal mining activities.
“The government is reluctant to order probe because of the consequences as everyone in power is involved,” said Amita.
The fresh coal mine tragedy has exposed the weakness and the helplessness of the government in enforcing strict ban on coal mining.
While the Assam media had reported the death of two coal miners in an abandoned mine in Shallang, West Khasi Hills, on February 16 evening, both the state government and the police were in denial mode.
There were two similar incidents in East Jaintia Hills within a span of two years but the government is yet to learn from the past mistakes.
The incident site in Shallang is near the large number of coke plants.
With options closed, Agnes has sought the intervention of the Meghalaya Human Rights Commission to seek a report on the incident.
More shocking is the reply of Chief Minister Conrad Sangma and Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong asking people to bring proof for the recurring questions on illegal coal mining activities. The recent response of the government was after Opposition Leader Mukul Sangma brought before the media a video and photographs of illegal coal mining in parts of the state.
However, illegal mining activities were reported even after the NGT ban on coal mining took effect in April 2014.
The then Congress-led government had also faced allegations of illegal mining activities and it was not free from the crime. But there has been no respite to the illegalities even after the new government was installed in 2018.
The first NGT committee headed by Justice (retired) BP Katakey had recommended action against illegal coal mining and transportation but the government did not follow up on the matter.
Katakey said on Sunday that besides recommending action against the cement plants, which were using illegally mined coal, he had even ordered probe into the export of illegal coal into Bangladesh. He had also recommended closure of abandoned mines.
Finding the delay in action on the part of the government, Katakey had quit the post.
Later, the NGT had appointed Justice (retired) BD Agarwal to deal with the matter but he was also replaced with a jumbo committee that had a few meetings but did not act.
Trucks stranded in WJH
As this report is written, there are at least 20 coal-laden trucks stranded at Amtapoh area after crossing Amlarem in West Jaintia Hills and more coal-laden trucks are near Tamabil border without any documents.
Villagers informed that someone had promised the truckers that challans would be issued by the DMR but its director is not in station. Sources said the trucks were escorted by men in uniform.
Both the SDO (civil) and the Deputy Commissioner were not available for comments though contacted on phone. The claim of special DGP, I Nongrang, that in 90% incidents, cases registered are just routine acts considering the uncontrolled illegal coal mining and transportation activities.
A senior police official admitted that the police are unable to check mining illegalities all over the state since there is no sufficient force to deal with the matter. In the past, the NGT wanted the state government to seek support from the Centre for central forces to be deployed in mining areas to check the crimes.
The coal curse in Meghalaya has turned fatal on numerous occasions, the worst in recent years being the Ksan mine tragedy, which took place less than two months after the near-fatal attack on Agnes and Amita and which killed over 13 mine workers. With a lax police department and an apathetic government, one wonders whether this curse will ever end.
~ Team Sunday Monitor