The National Green Tribunal ban of rat-hole mining and the livelihood issue in Meghalaya
Shnongpdeng in the Amlarem Sub Division of Meghalaya is one village on the banks of a river where the people and the river still blissfully coexist. The village which is situated on the banks of the river Umngot is busy throughout the year as the little hamlet is always thriving with activities ranging from fishing to water sports. Dapmon Syngkrem, the owner of Shatsngi home stay in Shnongpdeng says that they provide water sport activities like scuba diving, rafting, boating, zip lining and even rock climbing for tourists, and visitors from all over the State and even from abroad have visited the place. “We also give boats on hire for anglers who came to fish in the river of the village. Throughout the year people of the area spend their time fishing and most of them earn their livelihood from fishing,” says Bnai Syngkrem the headman of the village.
The water level on Umngot has risen because of the recent heavy rainfall and the river is crowded with anglers both men and women and some even take their boats and row some distance to catch more fish. Shnongpdeng is a village through which Umngot flows before it crosses the border to Bangladesh and the river still has clean and crystal clear water.
"It all started in the summer of 1984 when torrential rains brought down a huge volume of water but sadly this time unlike in the past, the water caused the death of hundreds and thousands of fishes in the river"
On hot summer days kids are busy swimming and playing with the little ones learning to swim in the shallow water. Bnai with his indigenous knowledge of the movement of the fishes in the river told this scribe that there is less fish now because at this time of the year the fishes move downstream to Bangladesh and will only move upstream in the month of August. He jokingly suggested that probably their visas have lapsed so they have to go back to Bangladesh and move upstream only after they have renewed their visas.
On the other side of Amlarem is Kharkhana a village through which the river Myntdu flows. The river wears a deserted look and in spite of the size of the river, there is no activity whatsoever on the river. The banks on both sides of the river wear a yellow colour and all the pebbles and the stones on both sides of the river have a rusty colour. Myntdu is a barren river devoid of any aquatic life. There is no sign of any angler on the huge river and there is no sign of any life in the river itself. There is saying which states; ‘the devil lies in the detail’ and one can see that even the plants on the banks of the river have a rusty colour and are beginning to die an unnatural death in mid May. If one takes a handful of sand and carefully examines the same; one will see tiny particles of coal mixed in the sand. “How can we say that the river was not killed by coal mining? Is this evidence not enough?” asks S. Shylla another villager.
"After the mass death of fishes was reported in 2007, the State Government directed the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board to conduct a test on the water of the river and the test confirmed that the unnatural death of fishes was due to coal mining".
The river is dead said Kip Amtra former headman of Kharkhana village. It all started in the summer of 1984 when torrential rains brought down a huge volume of water but sadly this time unlike in the past, the water caused the death of hundreds and thousands of fishes in the riverrecollects Amtra. The entire river stinks because nobody dares to eat the fishes and the smell lasts for a few days till high water from the uphill areas carries the rotten fishes to Bangladesh. “We did not realize that the dark summer night of 1984 which was accompanied by loud thunder and lightning crisscrossing the horizon like flashlights was the beginning of the end of any form of life in the river,” Amtra says. He points to a part of the river where the water is shallow and says, “We used to stock fishes using nets there and we didn’t even have to use any fishing rods because there was so much fish in the river. We sold fishes by boat-load and that was the kind of measurement we used to sell fishes to traders who came from different parts of the district. Now, that is all gone,” lamented Amtra. Deibormi Patwet a teacher in the village school says that they are not using the water in the river anymore; not even for bathing or washing clothes.
“The river is our mother, it used to feed us and cater to all our needs, we would fish, bathe and wash in the river and during summer all we had to do was fish. In summer we spent most of our time in the river; the river is everything to us and our lives circle around the river, but that is now gone,” says Kip Amtra. “We used to have more than 50 types of fishes of different shapes and sizes and we all know the fishes by their names, but now if we tell kids about this they will not believe us,” he added. People who live on the banks of the river have not only lost their livelihood to mining but in one fell swoop the entire culture also vanished as the polluting water started flowing in.
Across the river are two villages Bataw and Borkhat and the banks on both sides of the river too bear a yellow colour. The famous Bataw river beach is also being affected because the Acid Mine Drainage has killed all life in the river.
On the other side of the East Jaintia Hills district on the Indo-Bangla border, Lukha river has its share of publicity when the water in the river changes to a blue colour which has killed hundreds and thousands of fishes. After the mass death of fishes was reported in 2007, the State Government directed the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board to conduct a test on the water of the river and the test confirmed that the unnatural death of fishes was due to coal mining.
S.D. Lamare headman of Sunapyrdi (Sunapur) village which is situated on the banks of the river Lukha said that the livelihood of the people was snatched away from them like a bolt from the blue. They woke up one morning and to their shock saw thousands of dead fishes floating on the river, it was their worst nightmare. They never expected that Lukha which sustains their livelihood and which used to attract fishermen from all over the region would die a sudden death. Hundreds of villagers from the confluence of Lukha with Lunar downstream to Tongseng, Sakhri, Sunappyrdi Shymplong, Kuliang and till Borsara the frontier village on the Indo-Bangla border have lost their livelihoods just because the rivers happen to pass through coal mining areas.
Near Iooksi village on the border of Meghalaya and the Dimasa Hasao Autonomous District Council of Assam is the reservoir of the famed Kupli hydro electric Project of the North Eastern Electric Power Company. It is perhaps one of the largest water reservoirs in the area but except for a few boats that ferry people across the river, there is no activity on the river - no angler waiting for his catch or not even people swimming in the river.
The water from the upstream areas of the rivers is laced with poison because coal produced from Meghalaya has high sulphur content. The system of rat - hole mining of coal which has been operating without any rules and regulations has polluted the rivers because Acid Mine Drainage was directly discharge into the rivers. To add more salt to the wounds; abandoned mines were left open thereby continuously discharging AMD to the nearby streams. This is how the water of the rivers in both the East and West Jaintia hills districts of Meghalaya was polluted and it is no fault of the people living in the downstream areas that their rivers are now dead. The question here is - Who is going to compensate them for their loss? We have seen reports that people are talking about those involved in the coal mining business losing their livelihood if the NGT ban on rat – hole mining continues, but is there anybody who even cares about the livelihood of the people in the downstream areas of these rivers? “We have lost our livelihood and we have lost our culture but does anybody even care?” P. Shylla headman of Kharkhana village asks.
If mining in Meghalaya is not regulated, rivers like the Umngot which are still free from pollution will also be affected by AMD discharge from mines along the Chkentalang and Jarain villages. And if mining in these villages is not controlled or regulated Umngot or any river that passes through coal mine areas will die and people will suffer and lose everything including their future. This will be the saddest day in the history of Meghalaya because then we will lose all the rivers in the two districts of Jaintia hills to mining. And the moot question is - If this can happen to Jaintia Hills who can guarantee that it will not happen to rivers in the other coal mining areas like West Khasi, South West Khasi Hills and the various districts in Garo Hills of Meghalaya?
The NGT ban is all about livelihood but the question is - What kind of livelihood do we want? There are two types of livelihood – non – sustainable and sustainable which does not have a negative impact on the environment and does not destroy the livelihood of others.