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Overview of Rat-Hole Mining


Recently, authorities were given four weeks by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to respond in a case related to the death of six workers in a rat-hole coal mine fire in Nagaland’s Wokha district.


GS III: Infrastructure

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Overview of Rat-Hole Mining
  2. Reasons for the Ban on Rat-Hole Mining
  3. Factors Leading to the NGT Ban on Rat-Hole Mining
  4. Challenges and Future Prospects

Overview of Rat-Hole Mining:

  • Rescue of Trapped Workers: Rat-hole mining was employed in the rescue operation of workers, including Ramprasad Narzary and Sanjay Basumatary, from the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand.
Irony and Local Context:
  • Tragic History in Meghalaya: The use of rat-hole mining for rescue sparked local irony as lives from the Ramfalbil area in Assam had been lost in Meghalaya’s coal mines, where this method was banned by the National Green Tribunal in April 2014.
Characteristics of Rat-Hole Mining:
  • Tunnel Dimensions: Rat-hole mining involves digging tunnels 3-4 feet deep, allowing only crawling for workers.
  • Extraction Process: Workers squat to extract coal using pickaxes in these narrow tunnels.
Two Types of Rat-Hole Mining:
  • Side-Cutting Method:
    • Location: Usually performed on hill slopes by following a visible coal seam.
  • Box-Cutting Method:
    • Process: Involves digging a circular or squarish pit at least 5 sq. meters wide and up to 400 feet deep.
    • Horizontal Digging: Miners descend using cranes or rope-and-bamboo ladders to dig horizontally from the pit edge.
Pit Resemblance:
  • Octopus-like Configuration: Tunnels are dug in various directions from the pit edge, resembling the tentacles of an octopus.

Regulation of Rat-Hole Mining in Nagaland: Challenges and Policies

Coal Reserves in Nagaland:

  • Nagaland possesses substantial coal reserves totaling 492.68 million tonnes, but these are dispersed irregularly in small pockets across a vast area.

Mining Policy and Rat-Hole Mining:

  • The Nagaland Coal mining policy, established in 2006, permits rat-hole mining due to the scattered nature of coal deposits, making large-scale operations impractical.

Characteristics of Rat-Hole Mining:

  • Rat-hole mining involves extracting coal from narrow horizontal tunnels, often dug by hand, posing risks of accidents and environmental hazards.

Licensing for Rat-Hole Mining:

  • Rat-hole mining licenses, known as small pocket deposit licenses, are exclusively granted to individual landowners for limited durations and under specific conditions.
  • Section 6.4(ii) of the Nagaland Coal Policy (First Amendment) of 2014 sets restrictions on mining areas, annual production, and prohibits heavy machinery usage.

Compliance and Clearances:

  • Rat-hole mining operations require consent from relevant departments, including Forest and Environment, to ensure compliance with environmental regulations.

Challenges in Regulation:

  • Despite clearances and defined mining plans, instances of illegal rat-hole mining persist, complicating regulatory efforts.

Impact of Article 371A:

  • Article 371A grants Nagaland special rights over its land and resources, making it challenging for the government to impose regulations that might be perceived as infringing on these rights.

Struggles in Small-Scale Mining Regulation:

  • The Nagaland government faces difficulties in effectively regulating small-scale mining, particularly those conducted by individual landowners, due to limitations posed by Article 371A.

Safety Concerns and Urgency for Regulations:

  • Recent deaths in a rat-hole mine underscore the safety risks associated with unregulated mining practices, emphasizing the need for effective regulations and proper safety measures.

National Green Tribunal (NGT)

  • The NGT was established on October 18, 2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010, passed by the Central Government.
  • National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 is an Act of the Parliament of India which enables creation of a special tribunal to handle the expeditious disposal of the cases pertaining to environmental issues.
  • NGT Act draws inspiration from the India’s constitutional provision of (Constitution of India/Part III) Article 21 Protection of life and personal liberty, which assures the citizens of India the right to a healthy environment.
  • The stated objective of the Central Government was to provide a specialized forum for effective and speedy disposal of cases pertaining to environment protection, conservation of forests and for seeking compensation for damages caused to people or property due to violation of environmental laws or conditions specified while granting permissions.

Structure of National Green Tribunal

  • Following the enactment of the said law, the Principal Bench of the NGT has been established in the National Capital – New Delhi, with regional benches in Pune (Western Zone Bench), Bhopal (Central Zone Bench), Chennai (Southern Bench) and Kolkata (Eastern Bench). Each Bench has a specified geographical jurisdiction covering several States in a region.
  • The Chairperson of the NGT is a retired Judge of the Supreme Court, Head Quartered in Delhi.
  • Other Judicial members are retired Judges of High Courts. Each bench of the NGT will comprise of at least one Judicial Member and one Expert Member.
  • Expert members should have a professional qualification and a minimum of 15 years’ experience in the field of environment/forest conservation and related subjects.

Powers of NGT

The NGT has the power to hear all civil cases relating to environmental issues and questions that are linked to the implementation of laws listed in Schedule I of the NGT Act. These include the following:

  • The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974;
  • The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1977;
  • The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980;
  • The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981;
  • The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986;
  • The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991;
  • The Biological Diversity Act, 2002.
  • This means that any violations pertaining ONLY to these laws, or any order / decision taken by the Government under these laws can be challenged before the NGT.
  • Importantly, the NGT has NOT been vested with powers to hear any matter relating to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and various laws enacted by States relating to forests, tree preservation etc.

Challenges related to the NGT

  • Two important acts – Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 have been kept out of NGT’s jurisdiction. This restricts the jurisdiction area of NGT and at times hampers its functioning as crucial forest rights issue is linked directly to environment.
  • Decisions of NGT have also been criticised and challenged due to their repercussions on economic growth and development.
  • The absence of a formula-based mechanism in determining the compensation has also brought criticism to the tribunal.
  • The lack of human and financial resources has led to high pendency of cases – which undermines NGT’s very objective of disposal of appeals within 6 months.

-Source: Down To Earth

May 2024