On all fours, he slithers into a tunnel. The beam from the torch tied around his head pierces through the dark, cramped cave.
The 22-year-old crawls as the smell of moist coal turns stronger.
Barely 25 km from where at least 15 miners are feared dead after floodwaters gushed in on December 13, this young worker has just clawed into a similar rat-hole mine.
India Today TV’s reporters follow him into the lethal world of Meghalaya’s underground coalfields.
His voice muffled in the three-foot-high tunnel as the miner explains the seam is up to 150 feet ahead.
With no safety gear and not even a helmet, he wriggles, clutching a pickaxe.
By now, the miner and the reporters are coated in layers of coal dust.
“The coal seam is 150 feet ahead. But where’s the rest of the coal gone?” asks one of the two journalists crawling behind.
“It’s already been dug out from here,” he gasps.
“How long does it take to reach the mining site?” the reporter probes.
“Ten minutes,” the miner pants. But ten minutes seem much longer inside the hot, humid shaft.
MINES OF DISASTER
Poverty-stricken miners like him dig Meghalaya’s rat-hole mines almost every day for 10 hours.
Remember, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned the practice in 2014. But an estimated 5,000 rat-hole mines still exist in the north-eastern state, insiders say.
Their record has been dismal — more than 70 accidents since 2011 have claimed around 90 lives so far.
Chances of any of the 15 miners coming out alive from the flooded pit 25 km away in the same Jaintia Hills area are remote.
DIGGING IN DEATH TRAPS
The miner India Today TV followed has now hit the seam. He chipped the coal from the rock overhead, lying on his back.
The gravel falls into a pushcart below. He drags the wagon with his feet.
Bad timing could just be fatal. The fragile cave is supported by wet logs. If caught in the wrong place, it could collapse, crushing everybody alive.
The miner retreated outside, safely. It is pitch dark.
The man recounted how poverty drove him to rat-hole pits when he was just seven.
“I was seven when I came here with my mother. After the death of my father, my mother brought us here,” he recalled, walking briskly through the forests in biting cold. “I have spent part of my life here in the mines. Not sure whether the boys (in this job) would ever touch 50.”
LIFE IS CHEAP
The miner is aware of the hazards, both immediate and longer term.
“This pollution (inside the mines) is very dangerous. We work hard and in danger. We get paid by the load (we deliver). It’s Rs 2,200 for a box (cartload of coal) for a pair of workers,” he said.
India Today TV’s team next reached out to Meghalaya’s coal mafia.
Kune Lamare, the operator of an illicit coalfield in the state, admitted that she had been extracting the mineral illegally and selling it off in the open market for the past three decades.
Lamare also confessed that her business is thoroughly illegitimate but enormously lucrative.
“Is rat-hole possible? Is the labour available?” the reporter asked.
“The labour is working right now. That coal has to be stocked in the forests. It all depends on the weekly output,” she said.
The shipments, Lamare explained, would be stored during the rains and transported later.
“The loading will be done no-holds-barred on lorries. The consignment would come from the forests and delivered overnight,” she said. “No one would see it — neither the police nor the public. Up to forty tons can be loaded on a lorry.”
She claimed to be well-connected with the local police as she offered to sell off the coal from her illicit mine under full protection.
“We will drop the shipment at one spot. Once it’s clear-all, we will take it further,” she said. “I have so many big officers, police officers, in my house (family alone). I cannot mention (their names) because we are not on the legal path.”
Lamare insisted she could save Rs 2,000 per ton of coal. “It comes down to Rs 80,000, or even Rs 1 lakh, per truckload.”
India Today TV’s team next met a coal transporter in Meghalaya.
Kishan, the transporter, corroborated how the illicit trade works.
“We get Rs 60-70,000 for the road trip,” he said.
A middleman, Kishan added, is also engaged to transport the shipments into Assam.
“We leave our vehicle at the Shillong bypass on our own after fixing everything. The middleman takes it forward from there and gets the money,” he confessed.
LET COAL INDIA TAKE OVER?
Partha Bhattacharya, former chairman of Coal India Limited, complimented India Today tv for its probe, calling it an “excellent investigation”.
He emphasised that illegal mining in Meghalaya be totally banned, saying Coal India should rather be engaged for scientific mining in the state.
Bhattacharya recalled that the Meghalaya government and the CIL had in 2009 discussed a proposal to bring mining under the Coal India fold.
A draft plan was also created back then, he said. “But the adoption of that draft mining plan has been waiting for years,” the former CIL chief said.
A professor of environmental studies at the North-Eastern Hill University, OP Singh explained that mining remains a major source of livelihood in Meghalaya despite the NGT ban.
“Mining could not be stopped since it is the main industry, a source of livelihood in state,” he said.
Pre-election promises that the mining ban would be lifted, he said, had encouraged operators of illicit mines.
Congress MP Vincent Pala from Shillong agreed. “The BJP vowed to open mines within 180 days in their poll manifesto (in Meghalaya). Those poll promises encouraged the people (involved in illicit mining).”
Hasina Kharbhih, founder of non-profit organisation Impulse, urged the state government to enforce the NGT ban firmly. “The government should respect the closure order on the mines,” she said.