With the assembly elections looming in the near future, next year to be precise, in Meghalaya, one of the major issues at the forefront on the campaigns of various political parties will be the issue of coal trading in the state, which is facing huge anti-incumbency and is one of the few remains states in which Congress is in power with Mukul Sangma as the Chief Minister.
The Congress has been in power for as long as one can remember due to the lack of a strong opposition. The NCP under the leadership of the Late Purno Sangma, who served as Chief Minister when he was part of the INC before splitting from the party due to differences with party supremo, Sonia Gandhi, did reasonably well in the Garo belt of the state but that wasn’t enough for the party to form government in the state . With the BJP desperately trying to make inroads into the state, the issue becomes all the more critical.
To cut of the chase , NGT on April 2014 put a blanket ban on coal mining in Meghalaya . As most of you may know, Meghalaya is one of the most mineral rich states in the country. It has huge deposited of coal, limestone and Uranium. Limestone and Uranium are mostly concentrated around the Khashi and Jaintia Hills. Coal deposits can found along the eastern stretch of Garo hills and parts of Khasi and Jaintila Hills, but is mostly concentrated around the Garo Hills.
A large number of people in the area as well as a sizable portion from the neighbouring state of Assam used to work in this coal field as daily wage labourers. Most of the truck owners carrying coal from the mines to Jagirhopa – a town in Bongaigaon district of Assam, from where it was transported elsewhere to the country. The type of practice prevalent here is called Rat Hole Ming. For those unfamiliar, this mining is done by digging small holes in the ground, much like holes dug by rats. Miners break the rocks with axes and other hand held equipment, and material is carried out using buckets and basket. Sometimes, the hole dug is so deep that it is almost impossible to see or breathe inside the area and many labourers suffer suffocation and other related ailments.
On April 2 2014, The All Dimasa Student’s Union moved the Tribunal blaming the rat hole mining in the area for the pollution in Kopili River and turning its water acidic, following which the ban came into force.
While a group of section of people and environmentalist supported the order, a major section of the common public reacted negatively to the order as it affected their livelihood. Various trader and labour unions were up in the arms against the order and protested vigorously against the order through out the state arguing that coal can only be only mined through rat role mining as scientific mining will not be possible due to prevalent land rules in the state where Nokmas (meaning Mother of the House or one who owns the land) are to be taken into confidence. The small area of coal deposits is said to be another reason why scientific mining is not feasible in Meghlaya.
To merely say it has affected only the people in the region would be a big understatement as the entire economy of the region is in shambles presently due to the ban. Large number of labourers both from the state and from the adjoining state of Assam have been rendered jobless with some looking for alternate ways of income. This has in turn made the locals who earlier worked in the mines turn into crime as the state has witnessed rampant cases of kidnapping, extortion and robbery, some even in broad daylight. The traders in the region has been affected as sales over the years have dipped drastically.
The SC recently allowed transportation of extracted coal from 1st December till 31st March. Around 8 Metric Tonnes of extracted coal is to be transported during this period.
It has been three and half years albeit neither the Tribunal nor the state government has come with concrete solution to tackle the issue. In this regard, the incumbent Government led by Mukul Sangma of the Congress, who belongs to the Garo Hills, have failed his people and the state in the highest of order. NGT proposed the state government to prepare State Mining Law, which has not yet been tabled in the assembly.
The BJP and its main allies in the state NPP (National People Party), founded by late Purno Sangma after he resigned from NCP and led by his son Comrad Sangma and the UDP (United Democratic Party) have attacked the government on this font severely over the years. With the formation of North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) with its root plan of uprooting the Congress from power in the North East, there couldn’t have a better time for them in the state. Several members of the Miners association and union have put their weight behind BJP, with some of them formally joining the party in the recent times.
BJP, on its part has promised to lift the NGT ban as soon as it comes to power, along with promising better transportation and education system, which is in a pretty bad shape in the state.
With the next election approaching, the Congress have a very tough task at hand. It has already lost power in almost all the North Eastern states, except for Meghalaya and Mizoram (both Christian majority states). Ironically before the 2014 elections, Congress was in power in all the states except for Sikkim and Tripura, and thus it cannot at any cost afford to lose Meghalaya.
BJP has make it intention clear by strengthening its party cadre, declaring that that there will no beef ban in the state to wee to woo the electorate. But it comes down to who puts forth a more sustainable plan for the coal miners and planning their campaign around this particular.
All said and done , Coal will inevitably decide the fate of Elections in Meghalaya next year.