There are many things we do and do not know about the Meghalaya mining accident.
What we do know is that at least 15 people have been trapped in a waterlogged mine for the last 15 days.
We know that the mine is illegal, located at Ksan in the East Jaintia Hills. We know that the state government’s rescue team and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) have been camping at the site for days, but have not been able to do much — because they lack the requisite equipment.
At least 15 miners have been stuck in a waterlogged mine for 15 days now. Does anyone in India care? (Photo: Reuters)
We do not know why, 15 days after the incident, they still do not have the required equipment.
We do not know exactly how many people are inside the mine, for this was an illegal operation and no record was kept.
We don’t know if children are among the miners trapped, for this kind of illegal mining — done by digging narrow, ‘rat-holes’ — often involves children.
We don’t know if the miners are alive or dead. The only way for them to be alive is if they have found a dry shaft, because the area is burrowed with illegal mines. But we do not know if they were carrying any food or water.
Also, we don’t know why this is not a national issue yet.
When 12 Thai boys and their football coach were stuck in a cave in June this year, the entire world was hooked to the rescue operations. TV crews were sent from various countries to cover the operations live. India sent technical experts and equipment to the site, for which the Thai government profusely thanked us.
??????How many of us know that in the Thai cave episode, Indian team played a major role??Thailand requested India to send Flood Pumps of Kirloskar Brothers Ltd. Co. Pune. Chief of design,Prasad Kulkarni and his team reached there on Friday evening and helped the authorities?? pic.twitter.com/uBBwXpBom9— Kiran Bedi (@thekiranbedi) July 12, 2018
For Meghalaya, even our own national media has woken up slowly. Politicians are not lining up to demand help for or assure compensation to the victims.
All that has been found so far of the trapped human beings are three helmets.
The miners were trapped underground after water from the nearby Lytein river rushed in, blocking their exit route. It’s not clear how the mine was flooded, but officials estimate that any of the several illegal mines in the area might have breached the river’s walls.
The mine at present has 70 feet of water. The river is constantly leaking into the mine, maintaining the water level.
NDRF divers can only enter the mine and try to rescue the miners once the water level is 30 feet — the divers’ bodies cannot take more pressure than that.
For water to be flushed out, rescue personnel need at least 10 pumps of 100-150 horse power (HP). They currently have two pumps, of 25 HP.
The accident took place on December 13.
On December 20, a request for more powerful pumps was sent by the state government to Coal India.
On December 26, Coal India received the request.
Now, Coal India is ‘mobilising the equipment’.
Also, it needs to ‘assess the site’, for which an official will be ‘leaving for Meghalaya soon’.
Pune-based Kirloskar Brothers Limited, which had sent high-power pumps and technical experts to Thailand, on December 26 offered help for Meghalaya too. We don’t know if the offer has been accepted. Or whether it has 'been received'.
We are deeply concerned about the trapped miners in Meghalaya and are ready to help in whichever way possible. We are in touch with the officials of the Govt. of Meghalaya to offer our assistance in this regard. We hope all miners are rescued safely.— Kirloskar Brothers Limited (@KBLPumps) December 26, 2018
If these miners do not survive — by December 27, a ‘foul stench’ has already been reported near the mine — it won’t just be the floodwater that killed them. It will be astounding, unconscionable official apathy, the wheels of a rusted, indifferent, creaky system that cannot move fast enough, even when human lives are at stake.
The request for high-power pumps was stuck for days at the state government level, as the Christmas holidays were on. And why does Meghalaya not have pumps of its own? Because rat-hole mining was officially banned in the state in 2014, and so all the equipment to deal with accidents was consigned to the dustbin. But the mining continued, more unsafe now because there was no official supervision or regulation, and the government turned a conveniently blind eye.
The Thai cave rescue became an international issue because their government accorded it that kind of priority. (Photo: Reuters)
When the Thai boys were stuck, the world watched and prayed. When in 2006, five-year-old Prince fell into a borewell in Haryana, an entire nation watched his rescue, gripped.
But these 15 miners, suffering from the triple whammy of being poor, being Indian and being in the North-East, are yet to find any praying people or a few bleeding hearts.
The apathy stems right from the top. In other countries, the governments care about their people. The Thai cave rescue became an international issue because the Thai government made it their priority, rushing in all their resources, asking for, accepting help, enabling even ordinary citizens to go express their solidarity and concern at the site.
In our country, the request for pumps is meandering its way through uncaring bureaucratic labyrinths.
As countless accidents — the Amritsar train tragedy, the Elphinstone bridge collapse — have proved, human life is shamefully cheap in India.
Meghalaya is another playing out of a familiar script — a tragedy, and a farce.