At least 15 Indians feared dead after being trapped in an illegal coal mine for 10 days

Feeding lives.
Feeding lives.
Image: AP Photo/Anupam Nath
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At least 15 workers, who have been trapped for over 10 days in an illegal mine in India’s Meghalaya state, are now feared dead.

On Dec.13, workers in a local “rat hole” mine in the northeast state’s Jaintia Hills region struck an aquifer (an underground source of water) which flooded the 370-feet-deep structure.

Rat hole mining, which was banned in the state in 2015, involves digging a deep vertical shaft to locate thin coal seams around which a network of horizontal tunnels is built to extract and move the fossil fuel. Children and young adults are commonly employed in these tunnels, whose small height gives the mine its name.

The practice is preferred over other methods due to the thinness of the coal seams in the region.

The exact number of miners trapped in the Jaintia Hills mine is still unknown. Rescue operations led by the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) have been trying to pump water out of the mine, with little success. Only three helmets which floated to the water surface have been recovered.

One of the mine’s managers has been arrested, while two others are on the run.

Slaying a giant

India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) has banned rat hole mining in Meghalaya due to environmental damage and unsafe working conditions. But the practice reportedly continues to be an everyday reality in Jaintia Hills and other mining regions of the state, home to an estimated 559 million tonnes of coal reserves.

Coal powers the state’s revenue, and wields strong influence on its politics. Regulating Meghalaya’s coal reserves requires tricky navigation between tribal rights and state laws. Successive governments have therefore avoided the NGT’s call for regulation.

Mining is also a prominent source of employment in the underdeveloped state, where traditional occupations of farming and fishing have become less viable as water from the mines has polluted the rivers.