October - December 2005 , Volume 7 No. 2
People of Meghalaya are proud of the fact that land belongs to “the people”. At one point of time “the people” included larger communities and clans. Today the term community has shrunken to a few moneyed people who have the financial clout to buy as much land as they want. There is no system in place to bring about equitable distribution of land. Also absent is a policy to decide how the resources on the land surface and under it are to be exploited. Individual ownership of land and resources has resulted in a kind of laissez faire. Right to use land as is expedient to the individual, has become for the tribal a license to exploit all underground and overground resources without the corresponding responsibility to ensure environmental sustainability.
Some thirty years ago, coal began to be mined in Jaintia Hills, parts of West Khasi Hills and Garo Hills. Mining is an extractive activity and in other countries of the world indigenous peoples are waging a war against corporates and exploitative companies who are extracting all the mineral wealth of their land. Here the situation is somewhat peculiar. It is the indigenous tribal who is exploiting his own resources to the hilt. He is doing it with a callousness which surpasses that of corporates and companies. In the case of mining companies there are very clear regulations that no mineral can be over-exploited and there are certain environmental and social costs which the companies have to bear. For a tribal no such cost is imposed.
Because a tribal is empowered by the Sixth Schedule to do whatever he wants in his own land, the State remains totally non-committal about legislation that will put a cap on the extent of mining that can be carried out and the social and environmental costs that would have to be borne by the mine owner. In List I of the Seventh Schedule which is commonly referred to as the Union List, the Central Government is vested with the responsibility to regulate mines and mineral development to the extent to which such regulation and development under the control of the Union is declared by Parliament by law to be ‘expedient in the public interest’.
The words ‘expedient to public interest’ needs to be more minutely examined. Is the kind of mining activity that is going on in Meghalaya expedient to public interest? What is this public interest? Is the accumulation of wealth and affluence of a section of the community and revenue generation to the State exchequer the yardstick for determining ‘public interest?’ If that be so then the definition is indeed very limited. In the case of Meghalaya, the revenue generated from royalty on coal is Rs 165 per tonne. The estimated accrual to the GDP at current prices, from mining and quarrying in 1999-2000 is Rs 226 crores.
If money is all that matters then Government of Meghalaya can continue to allow extraction of minerals on the plea that mining generates good revenue. But should a Government, any Government allow mining to carry on unabated until every blade of grass disappears? I would urge upon the Chief Minister and the higher bureaucracy to visit Lad Rymbai, Khliehriat, Nangalbibra and other mining areas to see the horrible impact that mining has had on the environment. Lad Rymbai and Khliehriat have virtually turned into barren deserts. There is acute water crisis and the demographic profiles of these areas have changed considerably. They are high-risk areas for diseases such as HIV-AIDS because of the high concentration of drug addicts and prostitution. Whatever water sources were available are now polluted by effluents from coal mines.
In contrast to the scientific mining methods of companies, coal mining in Meghalaya is archaic and unscientific. What is called the rat-hole mining method has had severe implications on the environment. Elsewhere, strict regulations ensure that abandoned mines are filled up with sand or earth to prevent the surface from caving in and causing severe damage to the environment. In Meghalaya, because coal is located only a few feet below the surface, geologists say that scientific mining is not viable. But after the coal is extracted no attempts are made to fill up the holes. All the mines are potential threats. They can either become flooded and cave in to cause major alterations of the landscape or they might cave in because of a major earthquake. In both cases people of Meghalaya will experience a holocaust.
Under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act 1957 as amended up to 2002, the Indian Bureau of Mines is mandated to issues prospecting licenses. The Act lays down specific rules for termination of prospecting licenses or mining leases in case there are violations. Clause 4A of the Act states thus (1) Where the Central Government, after consultation with the State Government, is of the opinion that it is expedient in the interest of regulation of mines and minerals development, preservation of natural environment, control of floods, prevention of pollution, or to avoid danger to public health or communications or to ensure safety of buildings, monuments or other structures or for conservation of mineral resources or for maintaining safety in the mines or for such other purposes as the Central Government may deem fit, it may request the State Government to make a premature termination of a prospecting license or mining lease.
The Indian Bureau of Mines has an official posted at Guwahati to supervise mining activities in the region. He is obviously not reporting the alarming facts to the Ministry. At this point of time the people of Jaintia Hills are far from being aware about the environmental degradation that has set in at such a rapid pace. They are still trying to grapple with drug addiction and alcoholism which has apparently afflicted every single household in the district. Parents are crying out for a cure. But drug addiction and alcoholism are all signs that something has gone horribly wrong in an otherwise affluent society.
Today, people realise that while coal mining has brought in wealth, that wealth has not added to the quality of life because people were not educated enough to manage their resources or their finances judiciously. The licentious manner in which people have exploited their resources has also brought in profligacy in the way money is spent. Unfortunately that money is now invested by the younger generation in the destruction and shortening of their own lives.
But what should cause concern is the depletion of water sources which provide water to a large majority of the population who do not necessarily share the wealth from mining. Another matter of concern is the moral depravation that has set in. When money is worshipped as a God and nothing else matters, then civilizations do not take long to collapse.
It is time for all pressure groups to focus on the vicious cycle of unregulated coal mining. Legislators will be the last persons to bring such issues into the public domain because of their vested interests. If so much of attention is paid to mining of uranium, is coal mining any less of an evil? Human Rights groups too need to take a more serious view of this situation. It is time to form a network with other environmentally conscious groups across the country and press for strong legislation on the issue of unregulated mining.
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