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SHILLONG, December 26, 2018: There seems to be no hope at the end of the tunnel for the 15 labourers trapped in a coal mine a fortnight ago, as search operations have been suspended by the Meghalaya government for want of high-powered pumps to flush out water from the pit.
Four years after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered a ban on coal mining in Meghalaya, illegal practices continue unabated in the state, putting lives at risk every day.
A top police officer told PTI that it took them long to locate the quarry as local people were scared to divulge information, fearing a backlash from mine owners.
Sylvester Nongtynger, the East Jaintia Hills superintendent of police, said he came to know about the accident from Rajabala leader Azad Aman.
"It took the police hours to locate the mine as the villagers feigned ignorance about the accident. They are afraid that mine owners might cause them harm. Some who consider mining to be their only means of livelihood fear police action may add to their woes," he said.
A month ago, rights activist Agnes Kharshiing and her companion were attacked by a group of people who were suspected to be members of coal mining mafia in East Jaintia Hills district.
Ms Kharshiing had reportedly captured photographs of illegal rat-hole mining in the district and was stopped by miscreants on their way back.
Rat-hole mining involves digging of narrow tunnels, usually 3-4 feet high, for workers to enter and extract coal. The horizontal tunnels are often termed "rat-holes", as each just about fits one person.
According to government reports, the coal mining industry was among the biggest revenue earners for the state, generating about Rs. 700 crore annually, prior to its ban in 2014.
The NGT had cited safety of miners as one of the reasons when it clamped down on coal mining in the state.
Heaps of freshly dug coal could be seen dumped on both sides of the road that approaches Lumthari village, where the miners were trapped on December 13, from Khliehriat, the district headquarters of East Jaintia Hills.
District deputy commissioner F M Dopth told this PTI correspondent to take security cover if he intended to tour the village as local people are agitated over the incident.
Three from the village are among the 15 labourers who got trapped in the mine when water from nearby Lytein river gushed into it.
A three-member panel, formed in August by the NGT, is assessing the steps taken by the state government to restore the environment damaged due to rat-hole mining.