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Rat-Hole Mining


The rescue operation for 41 workers trapped in the partially-collapsed Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand utilized two scientific mining methods, vertical drilling and auger (horizontal drilling), after 17 days of being trapped. The final phase of the rescue involved the use of rat-hole mining, a technique previously employed in Meghalaya.


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.

Reasons for the Ban on Rat-Hole Mining:

Government Control Challenges:
  • Land Ownership Dynamics: Meghalaya operates under the Sixth Schedule, exempting it from the Coal Mines Nationalisation Act of 1973. Landowners, therefore, have control over both the land and minerals underneath.
  • Limited Government Authority: The government faces challenges in regulating mining activities due to limited control over the land.
Historical Context and Economic Factors:
  • Post-Statehood Coal Boom: Coal mining surged after Meghalaya attained statehood in 1972.
  • Limitations in Advanced Technology: Mine owners, deterred by challenging terrain and high expenses, opted for traditional methods like rat-hole mining.
  • Exploitative Labor Practices: Workers, often from Assam, Nepal, and nearby Bangladesh, engaged in rat-hole mining due to higher earnings compared to agricultural or construction work.
Hazards and Environmental Impact:
  • Safety Concerns: Rat-hole mining posed risks such as asphyxiation, mine collapse, and flooding due to poor ventilation, lack of structural support, and inadequate safety measures.
  • Environmental Degradation: Unregulated mining led to land degradation, deforestation, and water pollution with high concentrations of sulphates, iron, and toxic heavy metals.
  • Acidic Rivers: Rivers like Lukha and Myntdu became too acidic to support aquatic life.
NGT Ban and Observations:
  • Legal Intervention: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned rat-hole mining in Meghalaya in 2014.
  • NGT Observations: The NGT noted numerous cases of flooding during the rainy season causing deaths and emphasized the environmental and safety hazards associated with rat-hole mining.
Continued Illegal Activities:
  • Challenges in Enforcement: Despite the ban, illegal mining and coal transportation persisted, leading to loss of lives, including a tragic incident in Ksan, East Jaintia Hills, where 17 miners drowned in an illegal mine in December 2018 due to flooding from a river.

Factors Leading to the NGT Ban on Rat-Hole Mining:

Early Environmental and Social Concerns:
  • Activist Warnings: Environmentalists and human rights activists raised concerns about the hazards of rat-hole mining in Meghalaya approximately two decades ago.
  • Impulse NGO Campaign: The campaign against rat-hole mining gained momentum when Impulse, a Meghalaya-based NGO, focused on human trafficking and child labor issues within these mines.
NGO Reports and Child Labor Issues:
  • NGO Investigations: Impulse, in collaboration with other organizations, conducted three reports highlighting the prevalence of child labor and human trafficking in rat-hole mines.
  • Child Labor Estimates: Reports estimated that around 70,000 children, mainly from Bangladesh and Nepal, were employed in these mines due to their size being suitable for such hazardous work.
  • Government Admission: Initially refuted by the State’s Department of Mining and Geology, the government later admitted, under National Human Rights Commission pressure, that 222 children were indeed employed in rat-hole mines, specifically in the East Jaintia Hills district.
National Green Tribunal (NGT) Intervention:
  • NGT Ban: Responding to the alarming reports and environmental concerns, the NGT imposed a ban on rat-hole mining in Meghalaya in 2014.
  • Human Rights and Environmental Focus: The ban aimed to address both human rights violations, particularly child labor, and the environmental degradation associated with this mining practice.

Challenges and Future Prospects:

Economic Viability and Thin Coal Seams:
  • Miner Perspective: Miners argue that the thin coal seams in Meghalaya make rat-hole mining economically more viable than opencast mining.
  • State’s Coal Reserves: Meghalaya possesses an estimated reserve of 576.48 million tonnes of low-ash, high-sulphur coal from the Eocene age.
Government Approval for Legal Mining:
  • Government Initiatives: In May 2023, Chief Minister Conrad K. Sangma announced Coal Ministry approval for mining leases, indicating a move toward ‘scientific’ mining.
  • Sustainable Extraction: The approved leases are expected to facilitate scientifically conducted mining with minimal environmental impact, adhering to legal and sustainable extraction procedures.
Debates and Activist Concerns:
  • Profit-Driven Mining: Activists argue that the term ‘scientific’ might be a cosmetic label in a region where profit has historically driven coal mining.
  • Ongoing Debates: The resumption of mining, even under approved leases, continues to be a subject of debate between pro-mining interests and those advocating environmental sustainability and social responsibility.

-Source: The Hindu

March 2024