GUWAHATI: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed Meghalaya Police to probe 1,200 cases of illegal quarrying across the coal and limestone-rich state.
A three-member NGT committee, constituted in August last year to study the environmental aspects of rat-hole mining in Meghalaya, issued the direction. The committee, headed by Justice (retired) BP Katakey, is likely to conduct a field visit to the state by January-end.
The NGT direction came even as at least 15 miners remain trapped in an illegal and flooded rat-hole coal mine in East Jaintia Hills since December 13, and are feared dead.
Ever since the incident, multiple agencies such as National Disaster Response Force, Coal India Limited, Kirloskar Brothers Limited and Odisha Fire Service have been engaged in pumping out water from the ill-fated mine to be able to reach the trapped miners.
There has not been any breakthrough yet. Official sources said a team of scientists from outside the Northeast arrived in East Jaintia Hills on Sunday to share its expertise in the ongoing operation.
There are illegal coal mines galore in Meghalaya's three regions — Garo Hills, Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills. In 2014, the NGT banned rat-hole coal mining in the state after two Assam-based groups had filed a petition complaining that the acidic discharge from the unscientific coal mines was polluting a river downstream. Despite the ban, illegal coal mining thrives in the state.
Coal in the state is mined following the primitive surface mining method, widely called 'rat-hole mining'. As part of this method, the land is cleared by removing vegetation. Subsequently, pits measuring from 5 to 100 sq m are dug to reach the coal bed.
The rat-hole mining poses a serious threat, not just to rivers but also the caves. Meghalaya has the largest concentration of caves in the sub-continent. Most of the about 1,000 caves discovered so far are yet to be explored and mapped.
The defenders of coal mining allege that the NGT ban snatched away the livelihood of tribals. They allege the ban was an infringement on their customary practices and right to life.
The livelihood of many locals, traders and transporters depend on coal mining.