Guwahati, Assam: On 30 April, 25 labourers reached Nagaon at 3 am. For two days, they had walked a little less than 134 kilometers from 3 Kilo, a coal mining town in Assam's Dima Hasao district bordering the East Jaintia hills in Meghalaya. Located near the Kupli Dam, 3 Kilo is the popular loading point near the Assam-Meghalaya border where trucks are loaded with coal mined from the thousand odd coal mine pits in East Jaintia Hills. While most of them returned to their villages in Nagaon district, three of the labourers from Mangaldoi in Darrang district were quarantined in the district hospital until 16 May.
Dil Mohammad , one of the three labourers quarantined, said that all mining work came to a grinding halt since the nationwide lockdown began on 24 March in response to the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic. With no wages or food, they decided to make the journey back home during the second phase of the lockdown when inter-district travel was strictly banned.
"We didn't have any money on us and the transport vehicles were charging exorbitant prices " Rs 500 for a ride that otherwise cost us Rs 10 rupees. They drove us some distance, rest of the way we walked," he said.
Jadav Saikia, the Deputy Commissioner of Nagaon said that the three were taken into hospital quarantine, where their samples were taken for testing. "Their samples have come back negative. As per the protocol, they have now been discharged with a certificate after the 14 day quarantine period," he said.
Coal mine owners protest import of coal from Assam
Since 3 May, when the nationwide lockdown was extended for the third phase, the rules have been considerably relaxed for commercial transportation even though coal was listed under 'essential goods' from the very beginning. However, local organisations, including the Jaintia Coal Mine Owners and Dealers' Association and student bodies like the Hynniewtrep National Youth Front and the Khasi Students' Union, have protested the transport of coal from Assam to cement plants in the state.
On 13 May, hundreds of them carried out a mass rally in Khliehriat, one of the major coal mining towns in East Jaintia hills district and threatened to break lockdown rules if the government did not stop the import of coal from Assam by Monday.
Vivekanand Singh, the Superintendent of Police, said that none of the 300 protestors in the rally were arrested for breaking the lockdown in East Jaintia Hills, designated a green zone with no covid-19 cases. "They were demanding the immediate disposal of the 15 lakh metric tonnes of coal on record lying in the district," he said.
Wander Shulai, President of the Jaintia Dorbar and a member of the Jaintia Coal Miner Owners and Dealers Association, said that coal mine owners like him suffered heavy losses during the NGT ban.
"I have suffered a loss of Rs 5-10 crore because just like the lockdown, the NGT stopped the mines suddenly," he said. "But it's not our fault that the government did not frame a policy or come up with rules to follow. We paid our taxes and challans and everything."
On 10 May, Justine Dkhar, former MLA representing the Khliehriat constituency, along with 7 others resigned from the National People's Party citing the growing disparity between the ruling party and the public.
"Along with the truck and coal from Assam, the driver and handyman will also come. Can the government assure us that they are totally free of the coronavirus?" he said.
However, Singh said that all the protocols are being following " the trucks coming from Assam, which are sanitised and all persons are screened at the border. "Moreover, we have told cement factories that the trucks will not be held overnight. The moment they unload the coal, they are supposed to be sent back"
Two lakh MT coal soon to be auctioned
Last July, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on illegal, 'rat hole' coal mining in the state imposed by the National Green Tribunal in 2014. The court allowed Coal India Limited, in consultation with the NGT committee and Meghalaya's Mining and Geology department, to auction the remaining 32,56,715 metric tonnes of coal lying unused.
In March, the NGT committee headed by former Justice BD Aggarwal approved the auction and transport of 2 lakh metric tonnes on a trial basis. Out of this, 75,000 metric tonnes of coal is lying in Jaintia hills.
While Dkhar, also a mine owner, raised objections to coal trucks coming from Assam when the NGT committee had approved 2 lakh metric tonnes of coal in Meghalaya, Shulai said only those with political connections have been able to move their coal.
"The minister and their relatives are getting to transport their coal while we wait for our turn. Even during the NGT ban, it was only mine owners in the government who made profits and the revenue never reached the public funds," he told Imphal Free Press.
Awaiting instructions from Coal India Limited (CIL) for auctioning of the 2 lakh metric tonnes of coal, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma said that the government asked for 'some time' to resolve the problem. However, Dr. Manjunatha Channabasappa, Secretary in the Mining and Geology department, said it would take a month before auctioning could begin.
"We have already formulated an auction plan that has been agreed upon by CIL and the NGT committee but it will take us at least a month to figure out the modalities," he told Imphal Free Press. Imphal Free Press could not reach Jugal Kumar Borah, General Manager of the Northeast Coalfields Ltd., who represented CIL in the meetings with the NGT committee and Meghalaya government, for a comment.
Until the government formulates a state mining policy, coal mining activity remains illegal despite the Supreme Court ruling. The order, also, brought coal mining under the purview of central mining laws like the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, the Mines Act, 1952 and in compliance with environmental legislation.
Despite that, several hundreds of coal laden trucks plying on national and international highways connecting Assam and Bangladesh, respectively, have been seized during the ban. In its last order in January this year, the NGT noted a total of 80,000 MT of coal seized by the Meghalaya Police so far.
During the lockdown alone, Singh said they had booked 14 cases of illegal transport of coal-laden trucks under the MMDR act, section 51 of the Disaster Management act and various sections of the Indian Penal Code. He said that the cement plants have become careful especially since the NGT exposed the discrepancies in the coal required and legally procured by cement plants like Dalmia and Star Cement Ltd. in an order in January.
"Cement plants have been strictly instructed not to take any local coal in their premises. We have warned them that if we find an illegal local coal truck inside your premises, we will book your whole management under conspiracy," he said.
Thousands of labourers without work
While coal mine owners that Imphal Free Press spoke to maintain that all migrant labourers have left the state, Dil Mehmood said there are still a lot of labourers stranded in the coal mining areas.
Anti trafficking activist and founder of Impulse NGO Network, Hasina Kharbhih plans to move the NGT this week to divert Rs 800 crores from the Meghalaya Environment Protection and Restoration fund that is supposed to be collected from coal mine owners towards a COVID-19 fund to help the labourers. From their preliminary assessment and mapping of existing active coal mines in the state, they estimated there are 15,000 labourers - both migrants and locals - still working in coal mines.
"Meghalaya is not like the rest of India, where thousands are walking across state lines. With the prevailing insider-outsider politics, it's not so easy for migrant labourers to do that here"
The author is a National Foundation for India 2019 fellow