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Mining in rat holes, and a Meghalayan policy

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Tehelka Blog, Nov 12, 2012

It is said that Meghalaya has a history of no less the 80 years of unregulated and unscientific of natural resources, mostly coal and limestone. Due to customary tribal laws and lack of resistance, unregulated has turned into a cottage industry of sorts in the hilly state. In fact, though it remains quite unregulated, is ’s biggest industry.

For instance, you will come across ‘rat hole mining’ in almost every nook and corner, where minors risk their lives to dig out coal. It was after activists rung the alarm bells on child rights abuse in these ‘rat holes’ that the Meghalaya government started to take the matter seriously. Moreover, the presence of large-scale limestone reserves in the state has made way for dozens of cement manufacturing plants, often set up in violation of environmental and forest guidelines. Meanwhile, the state government has drafted the Meghalaya Mineral Policy 2010 and plans to get it approved in the winter session of the State Legislative Assembly – the last time the Assembly would meet before the state goes to polls in early 2014.

The Mukul Sangma government has already started to hard sell the policy, which promises to bring scientific know-how to miners and private investment to the mining sector so that bigger projects can be envisaged, which would also enable infrastructure development. Sources say, since the in Meghalaya is itself divided in opinion about introducing the policy, the government keeps it on hold. There is a desperate attempt to dress up the policy as a holy cow, but it is really going to be that sacrosanct?

All of Meghalaya falls under the Sixth Schedule areas, where, as per the Constitution, the tribals do not need any prior permission to start mining. So there is no need for environmental, forest or pollution clearances, and the industry is tax-free. Many of the tribals in governance and politics are also seen to be involved in unregulated mining. Though labour laws, child rights and safety norms are joke for Meghalaya’s mining industry, Constitutional safeguards for tribal areas in the form of the Sixth Schedule keep the Centre from poking its nose in the matter. Sources claim that all politicians have huge assets in unregulated mining, and the workers in the sector are either migrant poor from other states, or from Nepal and Bangladesh, or they are trafficked minors. So the state government tends to ignore even major mining accidents.
So the policy might have come about because of the pressure the state government came in from the Guwahati High Court on the issue. The HC had imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on Meghalaya for not having a mining policy, and later another Rs 5 lakh for not regulating mining on tribal land.

Ahead of the election, no political party in Meghalaya would dare to speak against illegal and unregulated mining, and after the poll, everyone will forget the issue and the policy will bite the dust. It is time for the tribal chiefs of Meghalaya, who hold enormous powers, to rise beyond clannish thinking and raise their voice for a regulated mining regime that has respect for the environment, and for forest, labour and child rights.

Ratnadip Choudhury Author: Ratnadip Choudhury works as a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka. A young IT professional by training and a journalist by chance, Ratnadip hails from Tripura and has been reporting out of Northeast for Eight years, as of 2012. He started his career with the Tripura Observer and went on to work with the Northeast Sun, The Northeast Today, News Live, Sahara Time and The Sunday Indian. He has also contributed to BBC, CNN, NatGeo TV, NDTV, CNN-IBN and TIMES NOW. Before joining Tehelka, Ratnadip worked with the national bureau of the television news channel NewsX. He specializes in conflict reporting and has a keen interest in ’s eastern neighbours. He is based in Guwahati.

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