31/12/2018 1:30 PM IST | Updated 31/12/2018 1:58 PM IST

Trapped Miners Reveal Dirty Secret Of Meghalaya's Elites

The disaster has cast an uncomfortable light on how some of the wealth in cities like Shillong comes from the narrow, unstable tunnels of the rat-hole mines in the countryside.

Silvester Phanbuh
Melambok and Dimonme dressed in their Sunday best. 

KSAN, Meghalaya — On 11 December, Melambok Dkhar (22), Dimonme Dkhar (20), Shalabas Dkhar (20), three cousins from Lumthari village in the East Jaintia Hills district, showed up at the illegal ‘rat-hole’ coal mines of Ksan to earn a little extra money for Christmas.

“From the bottom of the mine, the light of the surface literally looked this small — that was what they told me after their first day,” said Pressmeky Dkhar, bringing his thumb and index finger together. Pressmeky is Melambok and Dimonme’s youngest uncle. “The brothers never wanted to work at the mine for too long — just to make some quick money, help at home, and spend during the Christmas season.”

Three days later, the cousins were amongst the 15 miners trapped when waters from the adjacent Wah Lytein river flooded the mineshaft. Now, as Christmas gives way to the new year, the families of these three young pillars of the Lumthari village community are slowly giving up hope of ever seeing their sons alive.

“They really loved to be involved in the church activities,” said Pressmeky. “Dimonme is the president of the Seng Samla.” Seng Samlas are local youth organisations in Meghalaya.

While the fate of Meghalaya’s trapped miners has briefly caught the attention of the national press, in the capital of Shillong, the news has cast an uncomfortable light on a dirty secret that many in the state’s growing urban middle class would prefer to ignore — that some of the wealth in the city comes from the narrow, unstable tunnels of the rat-hole mines in the countryside.

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned rat-hole mining but, as the fate of the trapped miners illustrates, the practice continued regardless. A recent Citizen’s report — submitted to the Supreme Court — linked several prominent politicians to the practice.

The mine at Ksan, according to the families from Lumthari, has been active for two years. The recent assault on prominent activist Agnes Kharshiing and her aide, who were investigating illegal mines in the same district, brought some national attention on the conflicting attitudes towards the practice. Labourers are mostly sourced from outside the state and makeshift settlements of coal mine workers can be seen, complete with their own markets and shops. Mining incidents have happened before, usually involving migrant workers, but none received national attention as much as this one. 

Silvester Phanbuh
Melambok and Dimonme’s mother, Jostina Dkhar (in the green shawl) sits on the verandah of the family’s home.

Meanwhile, local newspapers periodically carry anecdotal reports and analysis of how banning rat-hole mining has affected the local economy.

“There are reports that mine owners have sold cars, homes and land as they are unable to cope with the continuing ban,” the Meghalaya Times noted in August 2018. “One such buyer of a car, who identified himself as Lambok Nonglait, told this correspondent that he got a prized possession at an unthinkable price. The palatial buildings with all modern amenities and luxuries that miners in Jaintia Hills had built are now being sold at throw away prices. The high prices for land in Shillong are a thing of the past as the ban on coal mining has greatly hampered the real estate business.”

Lok Sabha MP from Shillong constituency Vincent H Pala, in a Lok Sabha address last week, said that the practice should be regulated.

They had not even received any money yet when it happened, Pressmeky said.

Yet, Lumthari, like much of rural Meghalaya, has never seen the wealth that is associated with the mineral. Now, the village is mourning the loss of its three young men with an anguishing uncertainty.

Melambok and Dimonme’s mother, Jostina Dkhar (39) sits still on the verandah of the family’s home, wrapped in a green shawl, her tired face a picture of grief. She speaks softly, and only in Pnar. Her brother Pressmeky acts as the translator.

“Melambok and Dimonme were the sole earners of the house — their father is no more. The youngest two, girls, are just 7 and 12,” she said. The trapped trio was the first contingent from the village to work at the coal mine.

“They had not even received any money yet when it happened,” Pressmeky said.

The people of Lumthari mostly farm. They grow paddy, some vegetables and fruits and many engage in daily wage labour, like Pressmeky. “There are times when we have a surplus yield and sell the produce in the markets otherwise there is just enough for our own consumption,” he said.

Miners earn according to the amount of coal they collect. A decent day results in earnings of more than a thousand rupees, something the people of Lumthari cannot fathom in their usual lines of work.

Rita Dkhar, the mother of Shalabas, the third Lumthari resident to be trapped, walks to the house and joins the gathering. The tragedy has taken its toll as she sits weakly. She describes her son as the fourth of seven siblings. Just like his cousins, he was known for his enthusiasm in the community, a lot of which revolved around the church in this largely Catholic village.

Silvester Phanbuh
The Church in Lumthari village. The three cousins loved to be involved in the church activities.

Pressmeky walks off and reappears with two slightly crumpled photographs of Jostina’s sons. In one, Melambok and Dimonme stand together, dressed in their Sunday best.

There has been some attention on the village since the incident. “Some media persons came but they were talking in Hindi. We barely understood what they said,” explained Pressmeky and another relative.

We were told that the chief minister or some other important people might arrive in a helicopter, said Pressmeky and an accompanying paternal uncle of the trapped boys.

“There were government officials who came and assured me that efforts are being made to save the boys,” Jostina said. “No one from the mine owner’s side has visited us.”

On the ground

At the site of the disaster, a Navy rescue team huddled under a tent while members of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) moved equipment around and prepared for the next steps. A few locals sat on piles of hard debris surrounding the shaft, which has now been enclosed with bamboo fencing in the corner of the clearing. They looked away shyly and avoided talking to reporters — most of whom had come from outside the state and did not speak Pnar, the local language.

Silvester Phanbuh
Coal mounds seen on the way to the site of disaster. The mine at Ksan, according to the families from Lumthari, has been active for two years. 

Cameramen gingerly negotiated the ropes to take pictures of the giant square hole, the bottom of which could not be seen. News anchors from different regional and national channels gave constant updates. A group of fire rescue members from Odisha too were present. One of the SDRF members suggested that the vertical shaft was more than 370-380 feet, a fact echoed by Pressmeky.

“The river is higher than parts of the mine,” Pressmeky had said on the short hike to the site, which involves crossing the winding Wah Lytein three times.

The affected families in Lumthari are not up to date with the live TV updates being aired from the mine site. News comes from information received from each other — those who go to the rescue site pass it on to the rest. 

I just wish they retrieve the bodies of my sons, Jostina said.

“We were told that the chief minister or some other important people might arrive in a helicopter,” said Pressmeky and an accompanying paternal uncle of the trapped boys.

While observing the media persons, rescue teams and miscellaneous visitors at the site, Pressmeky softly mentioned — “they are just here to complete formalities.” 

The migrant workers of the mine were conspicuous with their absence. One of the observers at the site mentioned that they wanted to avoid any limelight and had dispersed as soon as the attention on the incident grew. Their huts close to the mineshaft were now being used by the various rescue teams.

Silvester Phanbuh
The shaft where miners are trapped. 

At the serpentine dirt road approach to Lumthari, one is greeted by the local cemetery on the left, comprising a meadow of crosses with a small chapel overlooking it. The family hopes that this is where the three brothers will find their final resting place and not the depths of the cruel mine. Jostina’s final words on the situation summed up the emotions.

“I just wish they retrieve the bodies of my sons,” she sighed. “So we can perform the burial rites and pray for them.”