NEW DELHI: The Centre told the Supreme Court Thursday that it was facing difficulties in rescuing 15 miners trapped since December 13 in an illegal coal mine in Meghalaya as there was no blueprint of the 355-feet well which has "maze of rat holes".
The government told a bench comprising Justice A K Sikri and S Abdul Nazeer that the illegal mine was located near a river and seepage of water from the river was hindering the rescue operation.
The bench observed that initially "no serious efforts" were made to rescue these trapped persons but now it seems that the authorities are making efforts.
The court directed the Centre and Meghalaya government to file on January 7 a status report detailing the steps taken and also the progress made in the rescue operation.
The top court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) which has sought urgent steps for rescuing these miners.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, told the court about the steps taken by the authorities, including central government officials, for undertaking swift rescue operation in Meghalaya.
He said that since the mine was illegal, no blueprint was available and they were facing difficulty in rescue operation as "a maze of rat holes have been created and nobody knows where this goes".
He said the 355-feet well was like having a 20-storeyed building beneath the land.
The rat-hole mine, atop a hillock fully covered with trees in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district, was flooded when water from the nearby Lytein river gushed into it, trapping 15 miners.
Rat-hole mining involves digging of narrow tunnels, usually three-four feet high, for workers to enter and extract coal.
The horizontal tunnels are often termed "rat holes" as each just about fits one person.
Mehta said there were a large number of mines in the 5 sq km and members of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), divers and dog squad had reached at the spot immediately after the incident.
Referring to the operation conducted to rescue a football team trapped inside a cave system in Thailand in June-July 2018, in which an Indian firm had offered high-powered pumps, he said blueprint of the cave was available and unlike illegal coal mine, caves have air pockets through which oxygen passes.
"The water is muddy there (in the mine). Divers of NDRF cannot go beyond a particular depth so specialised divers of the Navy were called there," he said.
Mehta said that suction of water from the mine was being done through high powered water pumps but they were not getting the desired result due to seepage of water from the river.
He said high powered water pumps of Kirloskar Brothers Ltd, having a capacity of 1,800 litre water per minute, was already deployed there but the water was not receding due to seepage from river.
The solicitor general informed the bench that a meeting was held on Thursday and joint secretaries of ministries of coal, home and defence, a senior officer of the Navy and officials of Coal India Ltd attended it.
When he said that the mine was illegal, the bench said, "The problem is why these poor miners should suffer. Unless the water is taken out (from the mine), it will be difficult to do rescue operation. Can't the seepage from river be stopped?" Mehta said the authorities were unable to locate the seepage in the mine.
After he apprised the court in detail about the steps taken so far for rescue of the trapped miners, the bench observed, "It seems they are making efforts."
Senior advocate Anand Grover, appearing for petitioner Aditya N Prasad, said authorities had not taken appropriate steps at the outset for rescuing these persons.
He said that according to a news report, high powered water pumps were not working there and only one generator was being used at the spot.
To this, Justice Sikri observed, "What we can supervise or oversee is whether all genuine efforts were being made or not. A journalist who is there (at the spot) may not know the technical aspects. We cannot go on what a journalist understands.
Grover referred to a January 1 letter from the office of Deputy Commissioner of Meghalaya and said it was mentioned in the communication that situation was not good there and they were facing financial crunch as well in the rescue operation.
He urged the court to send an independent commissioner at the spot to see the ground reality and verify the claims of the authorities.
"Joint effort of all of us is to see that if they (miners) are alive, they must be taken out from there," the bench said, adding, "Initially, there was no serious efforts which is normally the problem".
Grover said authorities can take assistance of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) as they can provide satellite thermal imagery of inside the mine.
The bench, while posting the case for hearing on January 7, asked the Centre and the Meghalaya government to address in their status report the issues raised by Grover regarding the January 1 letter and also on the media report referred by him.
The apex court on Thursday had expressed dissatisfaction over the steps taken by the Meghalaya government to rescue 15 miners trapped in the illegal coal mine and had said "prompt, immediate and effective" operation was needed to rescue them as it was a matter of life and death.