India sends more water pumps and rescue forces, but can the trapped miners be saved?

Hope against hope.
Hope against hope.
Image: REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika
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Attempts to rescue at least 15 miners trapped in a rat-hole mine in the state of Meghalaya in India’s northeast are yet to bear fruit.

India’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), leading the rescue operations in the Ksan area of East Jaintia Hills district, has sent for more pumps to remove water at the flooded coal mine where the miners have been trapped for 18 days. On Dec. 13, water from the nearby Lytein river gushed into the 370-feet illegal mine, trapping them inside.

Rat-hole mining involves digging a deep vertical shaft to locate thin coal seams around which a network of narrow horizontal tunnels is built to extract and move the fossil fuel. The practice is preferred over other methods due to the thinness of the coal seams in the region. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned rat hole mining in 2014 due to environmental damage and unsafe working conditions, but in Meghalaya, which has an estimated 559 million tonnes of coal reserves, many such mines are still functional.

“Almost the entire river came into the mine. Twelve lakh litres of water have been pumped out but the water level is rising,” Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma told the television news channel NDTV.

The water level in the mine is over 70 feet, the maximum depth that NDRF miners can reach. The NDRF has said it needs at least 10 water pumps of 100 horsepower each to lower the water level. Instead, for 15 days, they worked with two water pumps of 25 horsepower each. 

India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has criticised prime minister Narendra Modi’s government for not stepping in decisively to handle the crisis.

On Dec. 28, the Indian Air Force airlifted 10 more pumps to the site. Indian Navy has also dispatched a 15-member diving team

Business conglomerate Kirloskar, which makes pumps, has also sent experts to the site. Earlier this year, the Pune-based firm had sent experts to the rescue of the boys’ football team trapped inside a Thai cave and had kept water pumps ready to be airlifted to the southeast Asian country.

This will not be the first mining tragedy in Meghalaya. At least 24 workers have died in three similar incidents in the past decade: