Context: Efforts to rescue 41 workers trapped in the collapsed Silkyara-Barkot tunnel have faced setbacks. Now having tried several methods, the rescue team is now planning to drill through the remaining few meters using the practice of rat-hole mining.
Rat Hole Mining
- The term “rat hole” refers to the narrow pits dug into the ground, typically just large enough for one person to descend and extract coal.
- A rat-hole mine involves digging of very small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet deep, in which workers, more often children, enter and extract coal. Rat-hole mining is broadly of two types – side-cutting and box-cutting.
- Rat hole mining is prevalent in the Northeastern States, especially in Meghalaya.
Why Prevalent in Northeastern India?
Despite the presence of coal reserves, commercial Mining is not practiced in the North-Eastern regions because of terrain’s unsuitability and nature of coal deposits.
- The coal seam is extremely thin, and methods like open-cast mining are economically unviable.
- The coal found in the North-East contains lots of sulfur and this type of coal is categorized as bad quality of coal. Thus discourages big ticket private investments.
- Being a tribal state where the 6th Schedule applies, all land is privately owned, and hence coal mining (like limestone mining) is done by private parties which do not have capacity of big investment.
- Further, these mines are considered as gold chest by the locals which provides employment and prospect of money for the population of these backward area without much investment.
- Ecology – Piling of coals along roadside have caused severe issues of air and water pollution. Off road movements in and around mining area has resulted into damaged ecology. A petition to NGT by Assam’s All Dimasa Students’ Union has claimed that rat-hole mining in Meghalaya had caused the water in the Kopili river (it flows through Meghalaya and Assam) to turn acidic.
- Risk to lives – Flooding of mines during rainy season, and sudden collapse due to unscientific digging has caused loss of life to individuals.
- The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has banned rat-hole mining in 2014, and retained the ban in 2015.
- The ban was on grounds of the practice being unscientific and unsafe for workers.
- The Meghalaya High Court appointed Justice (Retired) BP Katakey committee to recommend the measures to be taken by the state in compliance with the directions issued by the Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal (NGT). This committee noted that despite the ban, illegal mining continues with large cache of coals reaching to the markets unhindered.