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How important is illegal coal mining in Meghalaya? The answer may be in legislators' assets

Leaders cutting across party lines want the NGT ban to be scrapped but deny any hand in illegal mining

By Furquan Ameen and infographic by Rahul Awasthi in New Delhi

  • Published 14.01.19, 9:33 PM
  • Updated 15.01.19, 4:06 PM

The mining accident in Meghalaya, where 15 coal diggers are missing since December 13, has brought to the fore how inextricably important coal is to the people and lawmakers of the state.

Exactly how central coal mining is in Meghalaya is clear after a look at the election affidavits of seven legislators.

In April 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned coal mining across the state as the water in several of Meghalaya's rivers have turned acidic because of unregulated mining. The Supreme Court has allowed the selling of already dug out coal till January 31, 2019. But the accident on December 13 and the deaths of two miners days after, also in the East Jaintia Hills, has proved that illegal mining is alive and well.

A December 2018 report by an NGT team said that a visit to a mining site a month earlier had shown evidence of ongoing work. The committee said it had found “fresh coal dumps on the roadside", “temporary sheds in the mining areas” and “a good number of cranes for mining activity”.

The details were of a site in Rybmai village in the East Jaintia Hills. The committee wrote that one of the cranes was found to be “freshly greased and having diesel oil in the tank for operation”. They also saw several vehicles, such as trucks, near the coal dumps and the mines.

This website spoke to seven Meghalaya legislators and the previous chief minister, Mukul Sangma. Cutting across party lines, all said that coal mining was central to the state's economy and should not have been banned. They welcomed regulated mining but also said they were unaware of illegal mining in their respective constituencies.

Their election affidavits showed a pattern.

  • Most of the legislators had declared that they own trucks, excavators and tippers.
  • At least two legislators are from families that have been mining coal for decades.
  • All of them said coal mining was a necessity because it fed the poor and if legally done would bring money to the government.
  • All said they have nothing to do with illegal mining.
  • Asked why they still possessed trucks, tippers and excavators four years after the NGT ban, some said the vehicles were now lying idle, others said they were being used for other kinds of work such as construction.

Arrey, in Meghalaya everyone mines because there is coal below everywhere. Coal below your church, coal below your house. Everywhere in the village, there is coal.

Vincent Pala, Congress MP, Shillong

In 2018, the BJP-National People's Party (NPP)-United Democratic Party (UDP) alliance came to power, ousting the Congress. Conrad Sangma, now the chief minister, had said during election campaigns in 2018 that if voted to power, the alliance would ensure that coal mining restarts in the state.

Days after the 15 miners were reported missing, he admitted that illegal mining is on in the state.

Conrad's rival Mukul of the Congress wants a scientific policy for mining, keeping in mind the environmental and social concerns.

Coal controls politics in Meghalaya, he admitted. "Meghalaya has a population where Assembly constituencies are very small. So, in a particular coal mining area, there are, say, 10 coal miners and there are people associated with this who are dependent on this for livelihood. They are under their (the mine owners') control. That’s like economic compulsion for livelihood."

"Meghalaya has a population where Assembly constituencies are very small. So, in a particular coal mining area, there are, say, 10 coal miners and there are people associated with this who are dependent on this for livelihood. They are under their (the mine owners') control. That’s like economic compulsion for livelihood."

Mukul Sangma

The conversations this correspondent had with the legislators are below:

Gigur Myrthong, 42, is the National People's Party (NPP) MLA of Mawshynrut in West Khasi Hills

What does the 2018 affidavit show: He owns 10 heavy goods vehicles, two excavators and one JCB

Question: Do you think coal is important to Meghalaya?

Answer: It is very important because we are dependent on coal, limestone and trees (for timber).

Q: West Khasi Hills is known for its coal deposits.

A: Yeah, it depends on coal, right.

Q: How important is coal to be in politics in Meghalaya?

A: It is very important. If the coal ban is not lifted, then this would be a problem in politics.

Q: Promises were made before the 2018 elections that if you (BJP-NPP) came to power, mines would be opened again? 

A: Yes, open up the mines again. That is right. I think the central government is going to help the state. I don’t know what the outcome would be.

Q: Do you own a mine?

A: I don’t have a mine. We have a lease.

Q: You used to mine on lease?

A: Yeah, on lease.

Q: Your affidavit mentions heavy goods vehicles as well.

A: Yes.

Q: Were these used in mining?

A: Yes.

Q: Have you stopped mining after the order?

A: Yes.

Q: What is happening to these vehicle?

A: The vehicles are just lying there. We have to make some plan. We have to do scientific planning (for mining).

Q: Are you aware of illegal mining in your constituency?

A: See, if the people are hungry, then there is no option. We cannot stop, na? In my constituency there is no illegal mining till now.

Yes, open up the mines again. That is right.

Gigur Myrthong

Macmillan Byrsat, 44, is the NPP MLA of Nongstoin in the West Khasi Hills

What does his 2018 affidavit show: He owns five trucks

Q: What do you think about the ban on coal mining? 

A: My view is that the ban should be lifted, the environmental concern should be looked into by the government. The land system belongs to the people of Meghalaya. If the ban is lifted, it is our responsibility to take care of the environment and safety of labourers and others.

Q: Why should the ban be lifted?

A: It is important for the livelihood of people and the economy.

Q: Are you a mine owner?

A: No, I’m not a mine owner. I saw my name in a paper even though I’m not. I don’t have a mine. 

Q: What about the land you own?

A: We have ancestral property. There is no mine there. I stopped supplying (and transporting coal) in April-May 2014 because of the NGT ban. They allowed transportation of already extracted coal.

Q: Why did you stop sending your trucks for coal transport and supply then?

A: Because I started concentrating on my contract work.

Q: Are coal and politics in Meghalaya linked?

A: In my opinion, coal money and politics don’t have any link. In my constituency, Nongstoin, coal money has no role to play. People are respectable voters. I don’t know about other places, but in my place money is not going to influence politics.

Q: The NPP came to power on the promise that it would legalise mining, no?

A: No, we didn’t promise. Only the BJP said that. It wasn’t even in our manifesto.

Q: But legalising mining was mentioned during campaigns.

A: It might have been a tactic of some candidate just to woo voters. Coal is central to the state, I’m not disputing that.

Coal is central to the state, I’m not disputing that.

Macmillan Byrsat

Sniawbhalang Dhar, 36, is the NPP MLA from Nartiang in the West Jaintia Hills. He is also the minister of transport, commerce and industry

What does his 2018 affidavit show: Under assets held by his spouse, Sniawbhalang Dhar has mentioned two trucks, a tipper and two excavators 

Q: Are you a coal miner?

A: I’m not into coal mining. I’m not a coal merchant. Nothing.

Q: A citizen’s report mentions you as being involved in the illegal coal business in Meghalaya.

A: The report is wrong. I don’t know about that. I’m not a coal mine owner. Anybody may say it. That doesn’t mean it is right. You have to verify it. Don’t quote me wrongly. Very dangerous nowadays.

Q: How have you dealt with transport of illegal coal?

A: There is no illegal transport, according to my information. There is no coal mining. The government does not encourage it. If someone does it on his own and hides it from the government, what can you do? The government is trying its best as we are against it (illegal mining of coal). We have to obey the order of the court.

Q: But it is true there are cases of illegal mining, right? Other leaders have said it has to be regulated.

A: Yes, yes. That’s what we are requesting the government. Regulate it…. You know people are hungry and they may go against (rules). That’s why we are requesting the Government of India to let us regulate the mining. We respect the NGT order also.

Q: The NPP-BJP coalition promised to remove the mining ban after coming to power, no?

A: It was the BJP’s promise. We in NPP said we’ll try. We’re trying.

Q: We are referring to reports before the elections.

A: Somebody might have promised it, but I have not. Yes, I promised to work hard to make people happy and try our best. The best way is to get the central government to regulate coal mining…. If mining is regulated, everything will be in place, people will be happy.

Q: The state essentially relies a lot on coal.

A: Oh, it does, that’s right (laughs). We have no other resources. We have mining only. We actually need this.

Q: Your affidavit mentions that you own trucks.

A: No, no, that’s not for coal mining. I don’t have coal mines, or anything. Not even transport.

There is no illegal transport, according to my information. There is no coal mining.

Sniawbhalang Dhar

Lahkmen Rymbui, 49, is the education, forest and environment minister. He is the United Democratic Party (UDP) MLA from Amlarem in West Jaintia Hills. 

What does his 2018 affidavit show: It mentions that he owns 3 trucks and 5 tippers

Q: Are you a mine owner?

A: You see, earlier everybody was into mining because everything was legally done before 2014. But no, I’m not a mine owner.

Q: You come from a mine owning family.

A: Yeah, that is true.

Q: An RTI report says your wife is a mine owner.

A: She didn’t have a mine of her own because it was on lease. I didn’t see the (RTI) report so I don’t know. I have had nothing to do with coal mines, not a single thing, after 2014.

Q: After 2014, were the mines identified differently in the records?

A: No, they are abandoned. It is a very unfortunate, what has happened to the miners.

Q: The chief minister accepted that illegal mining is going on.

A: I can’t comment on what others say. Whatever I can’t see, I can’t substantiate that. I didn’t own anything myself and my family members' [mines] were on lease. After the order, they were abandoned.

You see, earlier everybody was into mining because everything was legally done before 2014. But no, I’m not a mine owner.

Lahkmen Rymbui

Dasakhiatbha Lamare, 25, is the NPP MLA from Mawhati in Ri Bhoi, which borders Assam. He is also the nephew of Sniawbhalang Dhar and son of former MLA Ngaitlang Dhar

What does his 2018 affidavit show: He owns a truck and seven tippers

Q: Do you want coal mining in Meghalaya to be regularised?

A: See, looking at the economics of the state, we really need it. It should be regularised, but keeping in mind the clauses that have been put up by NGT and the Supreme Court as well.

Q: There were reports about a large number of trucks seized in Ri Bhoi.

A: Yes, yes.

Q: The district is not rich in coal, then why the seizing of trucks here?

A: The district is the gateway to Assam and to everywhere else, that’s why…. There are no mines in the area. Zero. Nil.

Q: How important is coal to Meghalaya?

A: It’s the most important resource, I think.

Q: Why?

A: Looking at previous records, 50-60 per cent of the state’s revenue came from coal.

Q: How much does the coal money influence politics?

A: I don’t understand the question. You mean the government? Hmmm…. I don’t have any comment on that because the only benefit we get if coal mining is regularised is the revenue. That’s all I can comment on.

Q: A citizen’s report mentions your name. You’re the nephew of S. Dhar and son of former MLA Ngaitlang Dhar who were mine owners, right?

A: Yeah, yeah.

Q: After the NGT ban order, did your mine-owning family stop mining?

A: Since the day of the order, we, me and my family have stopped. Zero. Nil.

Q: You don’t personally own mines?

A: No. Nothing is in my name

Q: Your affidavit says you own trucks and tippers.

A: Those are all for construction. All.

Q: Even when mining was on?

A: No, no. Those trucks are absolutely for construction. We are in the construction business. Dhar Construction Company is our company, run by my brother. The trucks and tippers are for construction, not for mining.

Q: Your party promised that once in power, coal mines will be opened?

A: Right, right. We have been trying to convince (Delhi) a lot. We sent our policy to them, which we expected they would approve but because of some clauses which didn’t suit the NGT and the court it was returned. We are still trying to do it (get the ban lifted). All of us in Meghalaya are looking forward for the mines to reopen…. We’re still trying to fulfill that promise. 

See, looking at the economics of the state, we really need it (coal mining). It should be regularised, but keeping in mind the clauses that have been put up by NGT and the Supreme Court as well.

Dasakhiatbha Lamare

Kyrmen Shylla, 29, is the United Democratic Party MLA from Khliehriat in the East Jaintia Hills. He holds the revenue and disaster management and social welfare portfolios. Shylla is also the son of one-time coal baron Kor Sympli.

What does Shylla’s 2018 affidavit show: The affidavit does not mention any possession of any large non-agricultural land or heavy vehicle.

Q: What is your opinion about the coal mining ban?

A: After this ban, there has been a huge drop in revenue. That is not the only thing. The problem is about the livelihood of people. That is the main concern. Why do they do illegal mining? The reason is that when they have nothing to eat, they have to survive…. They are willing to do any kind of job just for Rs 50 or 100. That is what has happened in some rural areas.

Q: Is illegal mining on?

A: We are not encouraging anyone to do illegal mining. We are against it actually. But still we cannot watch all the time to stop it.

Q: How important is coal mining to Meghalaya?

A: You can say that almost all of us are related to coal mining. My dad also has a mine but after the ban, we shut it down. Although it affects us, still we can survive, but we pity the poor people. They depend on us and we depend on them. There are no mines under my name but my parents used to give me a share…. Actually this coal money means a lot to all of us.

Q: Is coal being mined in your constituency?

A: The area where the miners are trapped, I’d never been there earlier. Where coal mines are located, those are in my area in East Jaintia Hills but they are far from the highway and very difficult to go and check.

Q: The miners’ rescue is your ministry’s responsibility, right?

A: Actually, to rescue is to get those people out alive. I think this will be a little difficult now.… These things (illegal mining and accidents) will continue until we have something for them (the poor). 

The problem is about the livelihood of people. That is the main concern. Why do they do illegal mining? The reason is that when they have nothing to eat, they have to survive.

Kyrmen Shylla

Vincent Pala, 50, is the Congress MP from Shillong

What his 2014 affidavit shows: It mentions 30 mine surface rights in the Jaintia Hills, 2,000 tonnes of coal and 135 acres of non-agricultural land in Rymbai 

Q: What is your opinion on the coal mining ban?

A: The same style of mining is not banned in Assam and other parts. Our people, just across the river in Assam are mining the same way. My point is to regulate. Make what laws you want, what rules you want. Let the government tell us this is the way to mine, we’ll do that.

Q: What about the accident?

A: Based on ground reality, what can we do? Coal India and Kirloskar are at the spot where the tragedy happened. They are unable to do anything…. These accidents happened one after another because this is illegal…. You cannot say: ‘Don’t mine, don’t mine’. Tell us how to do the mining. What are the best practices, best ways, what tech? You tell us.

Q: Your affidavit says…

A: Arrey, in Meghalaya everyone mines because there is coal below everywhere. Coal below your church, coal below your house. Everywhere in the village, there is coal.

Q: But the illegal mining continued after 2014.

A: The majority of people stopped mining after this NGT order. Illegal mining is only done by those who have small mines. Big miners cannot do illegal mining because you have to pump the water. You have to pump water for one or two months.… My mines are big mines. You cannot do illegal mining there. 

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