ITANAGAR: More than a month since 15 people were trapped in one of Meghalaya’s infamous ‘rat-hole mines’, rescue teams are no closer to finding them than they were four weeks ago and the Supreme Court having suspended all coal transportation activities till February 19.

Last month on December 13, around 20 people had entered one of the several illegal mines in the state’s East Jaintia Hills district. When a tunnelling operation went wrong, 15 of them found themselves trapped inside with water, possibly flowing from the nearby Lytein river.

Despite the month-long rescue operation, which was briefly suspended due to the unavailability of capable equipment, and several government and private agencies working to extract water from the mine in question, little headway has been made since the water flowing from the river continuously refills it.

Mining in Meghalaya was banned by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014 but it later allowed for the transportation of coal that was already extracted. The NGT’s order had little impact on the ground as several mines continued to illegally extract new consignments of coal and transport them across state lines into Assam.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court directed the state government to stop all coal transportation activities until February 19 when the case will be heard again.

The top court has already been hearing a case on the illegal mining activities and transportation of coal, even before the 15 miners were trapped. On several occasions too, it had extended the deadline for the transportation of coal that was allegedly already extracted before the NGT order came into effect.

Today’s Supreme Court judgement comes a day after the second part of a report compiled by social activists from Meghalaya was submitted.

The second volume of the ‘Curse of Unregulated Coal Mining in Meghalaya’ said that the report was compiled “in the backdrop of the murderous attack on Agnes Kharshiing and Amita Sangma (both of whom worked on the report) by the Coal Mafia (coal mine owners that include public representatives, bureaucrats, administration, police) and leaders of self-styled non-state social groups and ‘NGOs’ and the total state apathy around this attack”.

The attack is a reference to the attacks on Kharshiing and Sangma in November last year in the Sohshrieh area in the same district by people suspected to be part of the coal mining mafia.

The report highlighted how coal was being illegally extracted even after the NGT ban.

“The season for coal mining and coal transport in Meghalaya is between September-April with peak season being December to March because by April, monsoon season begins in Meghalaya. Therefore when NGT order banning rat-hole mining and coal transportation was passed on 7 April 2014 – much of the coal mining would have been done and quite a lot of the extracted coal for the year would have been already transported,” the report said.

It said that several coal owners made false declarations of having coal stock while others “grossly over declared their stock”.

Citing that “Meghalaya truly has a resource curse”, the report also reacted to the criticism against the NGT order that it has overstepped its jurisdiction by passing orders about resource and land use in Meghalaya since the state falls under the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule.

It said that “protection guaranteed by the constitution for us tribals is not as the coal miners and transporters are claiming. Their claims are not based on social, legal and historical reality”.

One of the arguments posed by the miners has been that the NGT ban has taken away people’s livelihood.

Indeed, coal mining is a practice that has been prevalent since before independence during the British occupancy of India and is an important source of income for many families whose members know fully-well the dangers involved and yet risk their lives and enter those dangerous mines.

Recently, Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma told reporters here that one of the obstacles to stopping the mining practice has been the large areas over which mining is done.

However, he also said that his government was in favour of regulating mining with safety checks in place rather than imposing a complete ban on it.

Rescue operations of the 15 miners, meanwhile, continues.