In the last four years, with monsoon rains being erratic, farmers in Upper Assam’s Golaghat district have struggled to grow paddy.
Kamal Bahadur Chetry was one such peasant.
His family owned a plot, less than an acre, in Sonapur, a village on the Assam-Nagaland border, home to over 600 residents, mainly Muslims, Gorkhas and Adivasis.
In recent months, having failed to grow rice, the Chetrys were forced to buy grain off the market – and their finances were under great strain.
With cash in short supply, the 47-year-old did what he had not done before – set off from his native village for Nagaland to find work.
He had been promised work that was well-paying, but dangerous – that of a miner in an illegal coal mine in Ruchan, a hilly Naga village in Wokha district, about an hour from Sonapur.
“He had no experience in coal mining but we Nepalese are good at carrying heavy loads on our back,” Om Bahadur Chetry, his younger brother, told Scroll. “My brother used to go 400-feet deep inside the ground through a small tunnel, load the extracted coal on his back and bring it out.”
Om Bahadur said his brother’s shift would start work at 5 in the morning and end only at 10 pm, with a lunch break in between.
For the gruelling work, the miners earn Rs 500-Rs 1,500 per day, depending upon the amount of coal extracted.
On the afternoon of January 25, a fire broke out in the mine, killing six people. Chetry was one of them – as were three other men from his village, Majibul Ali, 46, Bishal Thapa, 28, and 44-year-old Dol Bahadur Chetry. Two other men who died were from the nearby Devipur and Dakhin Doyalpur villages of Golaghat district.
“At the time of the accident, 10 workers were inside the colliery,” Wokha additional superintendent of police K Soriso told Scroll. “Six died on the spot, while four others were injured and admitted in a hospital in Dimapur.”
Soriso told Scroll the mishap occurred due to “fire” and “explosion” which was caused by a short circuit as the miners were using “rock breakers” – a kind of drilling machine – inside the rat-hole mine.
Chetry is survived by his wife, and three children, the youngest not even two.
Nagaland’s rat-hole mines
Rat-hole mining is an unscientific and dangerous method in which workers enter narrow tunnels – only about three or four feet high – to dig for coal.
Illegal rat-hole coal mines continue to thrive in Meghalaya, despite a ban in 2014. But it is not unknown in other states in the North East, like Nagaland and Assam. In 2022, a judicial commission had found the presence of large scale rat-hole mining in Upper Assam’s Dehing Patkai region.
According to Thungdemo Tungoe, the chairman of the Ruchan village council, there are about 10 such mine sites in the village area and most are unlicensed.
“It is all rat-hole mining. There is no open-cast mining here,” Tungoe said. “The income is not huge as you cannot extract much coal from rat-hole mining. But people here need to survive by doing something.”
In Nagaland, the local communities get special protection and rights of ownership and transfer of land and its resources under the Article 371A of the Constitution.
So, the coal extraction is also linked with the rights of local communities over their lands and in many areas mining is done with the support of the village councils and influential civil society groups as noted in a 2016 study “Tribal communities and coal in Northeast India: The politics of imposing and resisting mining bans”. It had noted that the mining operations are usually carried out with the local people, not by the big businessmen.
Most of the workers, Tungoe said, are Bengali Muslims, Gorkhas and Adivasis from Assam. The coal extracted from these areas is usually transported to Dimapur in Nagaland or Assam.
According to the Nagaland police, the coal mine in Ruchan was owned by four people.
Two of them, Moyithung Tungoe and Tsenjamo Mozhui, both residents of Wokha, have been arrested. Both are farmers involved in coal trading. Akjur Ali and Saiful Ali, the two other owners, are on the run. The land where the mine is located is owned by Tsenjamo.
At Bhandari police station, a police official said this was the first case of illegal mining that has come to light in the year since he was posted to the region. “I don’t know if there are other illegal mines – the area is very remote,” he said. “We are investigating.”
Mojibur Rahman, a 51-year-old migrant worker, and six other workers from Uraimghat in Golaghat district were engaged by the owners of the coal mine to recover the bodies from the illegal mine at Ruchan.
Rahman told Scroll that it took over three hours to bring out the bodies as the tunnel – 3.5-feet wide and 5-feet high – was filled with foul-smelling gas, making it difficult to enter.
“We went four times to bring all six bodies,” he said.
Rahman, a former coal miner, said there were two other rat-hole coal mines in the same hill. “They stopped after the incident,” he said.
‘No work in the village’
In recent years, rainfall has been consistently poor in Golaghat district. In 2021, the Assam government declared the revenue circles of Sarupathar and Golaghat as drought-hit. Golaghat was declared drought-hit in 2022 too.
“Farming has not been possible for the last three years because of this drought,” Bahadur Chetry, the village headman of Sonapur, told Scroll.
Most villagers usually go to Upper Assam’s Margherita region, Meghalaya and neighbouring Nagaland to work in the coal mines as there is no source of income in the village, Bahadur Chetry said. “They go to other states as mining pays them higher wages.”
Local residents of Golaghat said mining in this area of Nagaland has been going on for over the last two to three decades.
“It has not stopped even for a year,” a miner from Golaghat told Scroll. “People from our village usually go for mining and the workers don’t know if it is illegal or legal.” The coal goes to both Assam and Nagaland, he said. “If it is illegal, how come it is allowed to operate for years?”
Miners from Golaghat and other districts of Upper Assam have lost their lives in Nagaland’s rat-hole mines previously as well, headman Bahadur Chetry told Scroll.
Four migrant workers were killed in a rat-hole mine in Yonglok village of Longleng district in Nagaland in 2019 while four others were killed in a rat-hole mine at the Atuphumi area in Mokokchung district in 2021. In both cases, the workers were from Upper Assam districts of Golaghat and Jorhat.
According to Golaghat-based political activist Pranab Doley, drought along the Assam-Nagaland border has become a “perennial issue”.
“It has triggered outward migration in search of livelihood as a result of repeated crop failures in the last few years due to drought conditions,” said Doley. The government has stuck to its duty of merely declaring drought but with no policy or plan to address the concerns, he said.
‘Needed the money’
Rejina Begum last spoke with her husband on January 24. Her husband Majibul Ali had left home two days earlier to work as a “mistri” in the coal mine.
Four years ago, too, Ali had gone over to Nagaland to work in the mines. This time, however, he was reluctant to do so, as he knew how risky the work was.
Ali did not own land, but would lease a plot every year to grow paddy or work as a labourer. “In the last four years, we have failed to produce any paddy or rice,” said Begum. This had made things worse with no other income source or job in the village.
“Some people working in the coal mine were luring him,” said Begum. “He said no at first but eventually went, as we needed the money for our children’s education,” Begum said. Ali did not make it back home.