To save its trapped miners, India should have learned from the Thailand cave rescue

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On Dec. 13, at least 15 Indian workers went down an illegal “rat hole” coal mine in the Jaintia Hills district of the northeastern state of Meghalaya. Around two weeks later, they are yet to make it out safely after having reportedly struck an underground water source that flooded the 370-feet-deep mine.

Over the past few days, teams from India’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) have been scrambling to rescue the trapped miners. But the operation has struggled to make any headway, given that the breach has allowed water from the nearby river Lytein to flood the mine. With water levels at around 70 feet, it has often been too deep for divers to enter safely.

The few that managed to conduct search operations recently reported smelling a foul odour underground, which could suggest that the miners have died and that their bodies have begun to decompose, according to a report in The Indian Express newspaper.

While authorities and the miners’ families are now hoping for a miracle, the handling of the crisis in India itself stands in sharp contrast to the rescue operation conducted in Thailand earlier this year to save a group of young boys from a similar situation. The boys and their football coach were trapped in a cave for over two weeks due to rising water levels. But they were rescued successfully at the end of the day. And this success had several reasons, most sorely missing in India:

Better equipment

The most glaring misstep has been the lack of effective equipment at hand to reduce water levels in the Meghalaya mine and facilitate the rescue operations. SK Shastri, who is leading the rescue, told that at least 10 pumps of 100 horsepower each would be required. Instead, the teams started out with just two significantly weaker ones, and despite getting a few more, they have so far been unable to effectively reduce the water levels. The Meghalaya state government has said it had asked for high-power pumps, but the request has been pending for days and the cause of this delay is frustratingly opaque.

“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,” Meghalaya’s home minister James Sangma told NDTV.

In contrast, the Thai cave rescue was helped by the availability of advanced equipment. Within three days, there were 40 machines pumping out over 400,000 gallons of water an hour. Ironically, some of the equipment was eventually provided by an Indian company: The Pune-based pump-maker Kirloskar Brothers sent machinery and teams of engineers to assist in the Thai rescue operation. Unfortunately, the same is yet to occur in Meghalaya.

More attention

In June, the Thai cave rescue operation made national and international headlines. Over 9,000 volunteers and some 1,500 journalists made their way to the site to offer assistance and provide detailed updates for the millions of interested readers and viewers around the world. And the rescue operation itself was a global effort, involving expert divers and military personnel from several countries, including the US and the UK, besides Thailand. As a result, the authorities were able to organise and successfully execute the complicated procedure to save the trapped team.

In comparison, the incident in Meghalaya is hardly being covered in India itself. Given the complexity of this particular case, with the mine’s close proximity to the river and the especially narrow tunnels, it will require a lot more attention and expertise to address successfully. Though the NDRF has deployed 70 personnel to the site and is working hard to save the miners, the incident has exposed the challenges of organising and coordinating successful disaster responses in India.

More political will

Prime minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Meghalaya have been accused of ignoring the crisis and simply not doing enough to save the trapped miners. While the rescue operations were underway this week, Modi was inaugurating a bridge over the Brahmaputra river in Assam nearby, sparking criticism from the opposition Congress party.

The state’s chief minister Conrad Sangma has countered the comments by saying that both the administration and the NDRF have been working hard to find the miners. Yet, the slow pace and the lack of a well-coordinated response stand in contrast to the way the situation was handled in Thailand a few months earlier, when the government, Thai Navy SEALS, and international experts worked together to pull off the 17-day mission that seemed extremely unlikely to succeed. The government was especially praised at the time for the efficiency of the rescue operation.

The Meghalaya incident has also highlighted how despite a ban by India’s National Green Tribunal in 2014, dangerous rat hole mining continues illegally, thanks to corruption and a lack of enforcement by the local government, which is putting the lives of countless workers at risk.