'It's a matter of life and death for trapped miners': SC raps Meghalaya govt for inadequate steps
The rat-hole mine, located on top of a hillock fully covered with trees in East Jaintia Hills district, had got flooded when water from the nearby Lytein river gushed into it, trapping the miners.
NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Thursday expressed strong dissatisfaction over the rescue efforts to trace 15 people trapped in a mine in Meghalaya for 22 days, telling the state government to bring them out dead or alive.
The tough talk by the apex court came on a day when the multi-agency operations to rescue the miners failed to make any headway with efforts to pump the water out of the mine not yielding any result.
The 15 miners remain trapped in the 370-foot-deep illegal rat-hole coal mine in Lumthari village of East Jaintia Hills district since December 13 after water from a nearby river gushed in.
"For people who are trapped there, every minute counts," the court said and suggested that the help of the Army could be also taken.
Holding that "prompt, immediate and effective" operation is needed to rescue the trapped people, the court said there should not be any delay as it was a question of life and death.
"We pray to God that they all are alive."
A bench comprising Justices A K Sikri and S Abdul Nazeer asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, to apprise it by Friday the steps which the government intends to take in the matter.
"As the Union, you should do something now. Either you take the help of Army, which has not been done yet. They (Army) are ready and they have volunteered also," the bench told Mehta, issuing notice to the Centre on a PIL seeking effective and best rescue measures.
"We are not satisfied (with steps taken for rescue). It is a question of life and death. What has happened in the last so many days we do not know.
"No matter whether they (trapped persons) are all dead, some alive, few dead or all alive, they should have been taken out by now. We pray to God that they all are alive," it said.
Family members of at least seven trapped miners have already given up hope to rescue them alive and requested the state government to retrieve the bodies for last rites.
The divers of the Navy and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were unable to resume the search operation as they could not go inside due to the high water level.
Asked if the divers would take another chance later in the day, operation spokesperson R Susngi told PTI that they would wait, but there was a remote chance of the water level reducing so soon.
Fire Service personnel from Odisha resumed work at 10 am and it was found that the water level rose again, a day after full-day pumping resulted in the water receding by 16 inches, Susngi said.
During the hearing in the apex court, the solicitor general told the bench that several members of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were working at the site and instead of the Army, the government has sent Navy personnel there as the mine was submerged in water.
"72 members of NDRF are already there but still no result," the bench observed, adding, "Why can't you take help of the Army? He (petitioner) says that water pumps were sent to Thailand. Why cannot it (pumps) be used here also?".
The petitioner said in his plea that Kirloskar Brothers Ltd (KBL) had offered high-powered water pumps and given technical support to the Royal Thai government in June-July 2018 for the operation to rescue a football team trapped inside a cave system in Thailand.
KBL offered to provide four specialised high capacity Autoprime de-watering pumps, which were kept ready at Kirloskarvadi plant in Maharashtra to be airlifted to Thailand.
Mehta, while maintaining that the petition seeking urgent steps for the rescue said he would take instructions in the matter.
He said the Union coal minister had held a meeting, which was attended by the chief minister of Meghalaya, and a nodal officer has been appointed.
"We have requested solicitor general Tushar Mehta to look into it with regard to the urgency involved as it is a question of life and death," the court said.
The counsel appearing for the state said adequate steps were taken and besides 72 NDRF personnel, members of state disaster response force, the Navy, fire department and Coal India Ltd were also involved in the rescue operations.
At the outset, the counsel appearing for Meghalaya said they have already taken steps for rescue of these persons.
"What steps have you taken? These miners are trapped there for long time. You may have taken steps but they are still trapped. You need some support from the Central government," the bench said.
To this, the state's counsel said the Centre was also lending support to them in the rescue operation.
"Then why you are not successful yet? Is it because of the water?," the bench asked.
The state's counsel said the illegal mine where the 15 persons were trapped was connected with a nearby river.
Senior advocate Anand Grover, appearing for petitioner Aditya N Prasad, told the bench that an adjoining mine was connected with a river and the authorities were using only pumps of 25 horsepower(hp) to flush out the water.
He said the KBL had sent water pumps of 100 horsepower(hp) during the rescue operation in Thailand last year.
"We need a cental coordinating machinery to deal with such situations," Grover said, claiming that authorities have not taken appropriate steps.
He claimed that persons, who have no prior experience in dealing with this type of situation, have been sent for rescue operation in Meghalaya.
The PIL also sought a direction to the Centre and other authorities concerned to prepare a standard operating procedure (SOP) for rescue operations in "mines and other similar conditions".
It sought directions to the Centre and the state to utilise the services of the technical wing of the Indian Armed Forces -- the Indian Army, Indian Navy and Indian Air Force -- in the rescue operation immediately.