Rat hole mining

  • Rat hole mining is a method of extracting coal from narrow, horizontal seams, prevalent in Meghalaya. The term “rat hole” refers to the narrow pits dug into the ground, typically just large enough for one person to descend and extract coal.
  • Once the pits are dug, miners descend using ropes or bamboo ladders to reach the coal seams. The coal is then manually extracted using primitive tools such as pickaxes, shovels, and baskets.
  • Rat hole mining is largely prevalent in Meghalaya, particularly West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills, and West Khasi Hills. It involves manually digging up small tunnels, around 34 feet, through which workers enter and extract coal. Considered dangerous, it involves miners going deep inside horizontal tunnels, which are generally constructed using primitive equipment.
  • Rat-hole mining is broadly of two types,
    • side-cutting procedure
    • box-cutting
  • In the side-cutting procedure, narrow tunnels are dug on the hill slopes and workers go inside until they find the coal seam. The coal seam in the hills of Meghalaya is very thin, less than 2 m in most cases.
  • In the other type of rat-hole mining, called box-cutting, a rectangular opening is made, varying from 10 to 100 sqm, and through that a vertical pit is dug, 100 to 400 feet deep.
  • Once the coal seam is found, rat-hole-sized tunnels are dug horizontally through which workers can extract the coal. Rat hole mining poses significant safety and environmental hazards. The mines are typically unregulated, lacking safety measures such as proper ventilation, structural support, or safety gear for the workers. Additionally, the mining process can cause land degradation, deforestation, and water pollution.
  • This method of mining has faced severe criticism due to its hazardous working conditions, environmental damage, and numerous accidents leading to injuries and fatalities. Despite attempts by authorities to regulate or ban such practices, they often persist due to economic factors and the absence of viable alternative livelihoods for the local population.
  • On April 17, 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned illegal rat-hole mining after the All Dimasa Students Union and the Dima Hasao District Committee filed a petition that highlighted the unscientific and unregulated rat-hole coal mining operations in the Jaintia Hills. However, following protests by the mining lobby, the tribunal allowed the transport of already-mined coal.
  • The Meghalaya government challenged the NGT ban in the Supreme Court in November,2018. In its last hearing, the apex court extended the time for transportation of mined coal till January 31, 2019. As on May 31, 2018, the extracted coal that is yet to be transported is 1,76,655 metric tonnes (MT).

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