Nearly two weeks have passed since a freak accident trapped 15 miners in a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills, and the authorities have all but given up hope of rescuing anybody alive. According to sources, rescue operations have now been suspended for want of high-powered pumps to flush water out of the pit.
The state government is unable to provide clear reasons for its inability to either procure the pumps or prevent illegal mining in the first place. Notably, an Indian company — Kirloskar Brothers — had lent high-powered pumps as well as manpower to rescue 12 boys and their football coach from a flooded cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province a few months ago, but no such equipment was spared by the government or any private agency for the domestic operation.
While two low-capacity pumps were used initially, eight more were brought in the following days. While all of them were ineffectual in pumping out water, some were even found to be defective. Experts say at least 10 pumps of 100 horsepower each will be required for the task.
Meghalaya Home Minister James Sangma admitted that the pumps used in the rat-hole mine were low-powered, but refused to provide further information because the rescue operation was being carried out by a “different department”.
“We have put in a request for high-powered pumps, but the information I have is very sketchy. The rescue operation is being carried out by a different department. I am so sorry,” he told NDTV.
James Sangma, however, insisted that the government has spared no effort to rescue the trapped miners. “It is a very difficult task because the mining site is close to a river. The miners may have ruptured an underground vein, inadvertently letting in water from the river. We have pumped out about two lakh litres of water but, despite that, the water level has risen by about two feet,” he said.
The state minister also asserted that the Meghalaya government has been strictly monitoring the region for illegal mining activities ever since the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned it in 2014, and this was an “isolated case”.
Former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, however, was not as forgiving in his assessment. “Stringent action should be taken against those who failed to rescue the miners on time as well as the people in authority who allowed illegal mining to take place,” he said.
The 53-year-old Congress politician denied allegations that rat-hole mining used to happen under his rule too. “If you check records of the NGT hearings, you will find that we had filed affidavits on several occasions. And whenever we were informed of such activities, we acted in a very responsive way. The government took every violator to task and registered a number of cases,” he said.
The tragic incident has gained nationwide attention, with opposition leaders faulting the centre of not doing enough to rescue the miners. “Fifteen miners have been struggling for air in a flooded coal mine for two weeks. Meanwhile, PM struts about on Bogibeel Bridge posing for cameras. His government refuses to organise high-pressure pumps for the rescue…” Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted yesterday.
Rescue operations were taken up a day after the mine collapsed on December 13.
(With inputs from agencies)