Chinakuri. Dhanbad. Chasnala. New Kenda. Gaslitanand. Godda. From 1958 to 1995. Godda in Jharkhand in March 2018. And every year in between. Drowned, blown up, smothered, poisoned. You got that right. It’s a roll call of shame. Private owners, public limited companies, government. Legal, illegal. It’s all the same. Thousands of men go into our mines each year. Hundreds die, the rest thank their lucky stars that the moving finger of fate had not stopped at them.
By the time this piece appears, it will have been 23 days since the Meghalaya mining tragedy happened and I doubt that the news is going to be happy. These are not men in the pink (pardon my stupid metaphor) of health. They are impoverished, possibly severely under-nourished, it is very cold, they have been without food and water. They are men driven to rathole mining not out of choice but from desperation. Behind them lie families in dire need, the burden of debt, the threat of money-lenders. Ahead lies the slim possibility of finding a tenuous way out of the maze of problems that is life for 90 per cent Indians. But only a tiny percentage of us absolutely have to burrow through the earth, looking for coal to deal with these problems.
Earlier disasters have claimed a far larger number of lives. Chasnala in 1975, for instance, also in December, took 380 lives. Bagdigi took 68. Over the year compensations have grown in the legal mines, and the Government mines at least doff their caps to safety issues. But what can one expect for the miners whose very work places are called “ratholes” and blithely dismissed as illegal?
Wrapped up in the holiday season, this whole tragedy has been distant from our minds. After all, it is as if Meghalaya itself is unknown country. Wrap your tongue around Ksan, the area in the East Jaintia Hills where this is all taking place. I am unsure about how to pronounce Lytein, the river that rushed into the rathole and has probably drowned all of them. Yes, like rats in a trap.
Writing for Al Jazeera, Indian journalist Priyanka Borpujari tells a searing story of families in Magurmari in the West Garo Hills, waiting hopelessly for news about their young men. For them, this is not a 24-hour news cycle that they can enter and from which they can exit at will, like we do. When the news gets too harrowing, when imagination begins to truly discommode, you shut off and get back to your REAL life. Commuting, working, shopping, entertaining, eating, drinking, chatting. For the people of Magurmari, sorrow, uncertainty and fear are their own 24/7 cycle, while the Meghalaya government, led by Conrad Sangma, admits that it is all illegal, throws its hands up in helplessness, and gets on with its own business.
In 2014, the National Green Tribunal banned the operation of rathole mines. Not really because they were dangerous and put human lives at stake, but because the acidic content of coal was leaching into and polluting rivers. Now one river has struck back. The miners are mostly collateral damage.
Did you know that in the area where all this is happening, there are “palatial” bungalows? They are owned by “coal barons” who own a lot of these illegal mines. Together with the government, they went to the Supreme Court and wrested a concession – that the ban would not apply to coal already mined before 2014.
That’s a whole lot of coal that has been mined before 2014. Five years on, it is still being transported out. And what have these poor miners being doing down the rathole? No one knows. No one cares.