In the early nineties while travelling from Guwahati to Shillong in an old cranky Ambassador taxi, the taxi driver on learning that I was from Jaintia hills District, referring to the coal deposits in the District, said “you people are lucky lot, God has blessed you with immense wealth.” I hesitantly replied I don’t know Bah, if its blessing or a curse,” and I further add, “one thing I know for sure is that only a tiny section of the population in the district get rich.” Few years later bah Arkin Pariat who was posted as Transmission Executive of the All India Radio Jowai, during one of our informal chat, suggested that the inscription in the signpost at Umwasoo welcoming visitors to Jaintia should instead read “Welcome to Jaintia ills.” I mention this because bah Arkin in his capacity as an officer in the AIR, Jowai has visited many places in Jaintia and I take this suggestion as an observation made by someone who is not from the district and thing get worse after that.
Now two decades later if anybody would ask me the same question, without any hesitation I would confidently say, it is a curse. I know this is only my opinion and I am allowed to have one, I also know there others particularly those who have become rich from mining will not agree with me, but what is going on in the district in general and the sub division in particular only prove otherwise.
In the span of two months two esteemed dailies of the region the Telegraph and the Shillong Times has carried out feature stories of raging crime scene in the area. The ST has a screamed line on that day calling Jaintia hills the epicenter of crime. There are crimes news reported from area almost every day, the most recent one was the attempted robbery by armed gang on a Petrol refilling station at Tuber. Yet surprisingly or not surprisingly, neither the district administration nor the district police take note of the report. ‘Not surprise’ because anybody who know the area and has done some work in the Khliehriat sub division know that the crime graph in the area head north every summer because it is a lean period and mining activities is at its low peak due to rain. Then crime rate falls once the rain stops and mining activities start picking up again and the cycle continues year after year. The only different is the crime rate increase and crimes become heinous as time goes by.
If a coal mine owner said that mining is a blessing then the question that begs the answer is why are they leaving their village for Shillong or Jowai? Isn’t it true that they left their home because the environment has been destroyed, all the water bodies over and underground are polluted and come winter coal dust and now fly ash particles envelope the atmosphere? Before the NEEPCO shared the finding of the study conducted by the company that the life span of the Kupli Hydro electric is going to be affected by the acidic water flow from Jaintia hills, before the MECL started the construction of the Myntdu-Lechkha project, before the report of the Mass dead of fishes on the Lukha river in the year 2007, it is already known at least to the local environmentalist that the water in the most of the rivers in Jaintia hills are polluted. Now the only major rivers in the District free from the pollution cause by coal mining are the Umngot and the river Myntang, but for how long? Recently bah Allan West, excited by the big catch he caught from his fishing trip to Umngot, suggested in a Facebook chat that we start popularizing Umngot as anglers’ paradise or fishing hot spot of the state because Kynshi in the West Khasi Hills is also being affected by coal mining. When I reason it out to him that Umngot is also on the threat of getting polluted from coal mining in the Chkhentalang and Jarain area of Amlarem Sub division, and the dumping of coal on the side of NH 44 from Mookyndur to Pommura, Bah Allan said he will use google earth to see for himself if that is true and that was the end of the conversation.
The news of earth cave in or the crack of the earth in the village of Sohkymphor was first report on the social media network by a young man Lalam Manner who was obviously close to the village and posted on the Facebook page. Lallam was panic when he reported the news and was concern about the safety of the people travelling to Sohkymphor because the day after was a market day. The next day reporter from Jowai visited the village and posted the photographs on the Save Jaintia Rivers and Cave of Jaintia hills facebook page for everybody to see. The crack which has cut the Public Work department road right in the middle and has also damaged many houses including RCC building without even a faintest tremor is a cause of concern. The entire Khilehriat sub division where the rat hole mining system is practice is precariously sitting over a network of mine caverns crisscrossing each other; in fact every coalmine village is another Sohkymphor waiting to happen. If the earth in the area caves in without any tremor, then the question is what will happen if God forbid an earthquake of a high magnitude hit the area? Is the district disaster management prepared for such eventuality?
Let us not be prophet of dome but instead look at the problem that people will face in the coming winter months, once the coal business starts picking up again. I know public memory is very short, so let me remind you of the traffic jam last year on the entire national highway 44 that we had all experienced which has even affected the flow of traffic in Shillong. Well it is time to prepare for the worst, there are already thousand of trucks transporting coal from the district during peak season and add to that there are 10 cement plants in the district which uses trucks to import raw materials for their plants and export cement outside the state. The annual production of each cement companies is at least one million ton per year and 10 cement plants produces minimum 100 million tons of cement per annum; I will let our esteemed readers calculate the number of trucks needs to do all the transportation work. Isn’t it time for the people of Jowai and Shillong to raise our voice against the mushrooming of cement plants because their trucks not only pollute our environment but apart from using the road that we all paid for, they cause undue harassment to the population of the three districts, the Jaintia Hils, the East Khasi hills and the Ri Bhoi District? Why should we let the Daloi and the Rangbah Shnong of Thangskai or for that matter any elaka or villages decide what is going to affect us too? In the recent public hearing for Adhunik mining area, not only the Daloi, the Rangbah Shnong support the mining in the forested area, but even the MDCs of the JHADC sent letter of support in favour of mining in the area, and these are the institutions that are supposed to protect the tribal interest! One wonder if these semi-educated MDCs would only read the three parts feature reports “Forest or non-forest: Definition after destruction?” carried by the Shillong Times will they still support the mining?
Now should we not also blame the government which is yet to come up with a mining policy even after four decades has lapsed since coal was first commercially mined in the Jaintia hills? Bah B.M. Lanong Minister incharge of mining, is a seasoned politician who know when is the right time to open his mouth, hence it is not surprise that bah Bindo seldom mention the mining policy before the assembly. Bah Bindo has now shoved the mining policy under the carpet and God only knows when will the draft see the light of the day and he too is the leader of a regional party which claims to protect tribal interest. One only hope that a situation will not arise that by the time the policy is implemented there will be no more rivers to protect and many Sohkymphor has happened and then; by that time it will be too little too late for the government to implemented the policy.