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Rat Hole Mining, How Banned Rat Hole Mining Saved India’s Trapped Workers?

GContext: In the recent rescue operation to free 41 trapped workers inside Uttarakhand’s Silkyara tunnel, the Rat Hole Mining method was employed to successfully evacuate them.

Rat Hole Mining involves manual drilling by skilled workers, commonly practiced in Meghalaya. Narrow pits, often only wide enough for one person, are dug into the ground. The term “rat hole” refers to these pits, where miners descend using ropes and bamboo ladders to extract coal. This method, notorious for its hazards, is illegal in many countries due to incidents of miners suffering from asphyxiation, lack of oxygen, and hunger.

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What is Rat Hole Mining?

Rat Hole Mining, prevalent in Meghalaya, is a method specifically designed for extracting coal from narrow, horizontal seams. The term “rat hole” describes the small pits dug into the ground, just large enough for an individual to descend and retrieve coal.

In this mining process, miners descend into the pits using ropes or bamboo ladders to reach the coal seams. The extraction of coal involves manual labor with primitive tools like pickaxes, shovels, and baskets.

According to OP Singh, a professor of environmental studies at North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong, rat-hole mining can be broadly categorized into two types. The first, known as the side-cutting procedure, involves digging narrow tunnels on hill slopes. Workers enter these tunnels until they locate the thin coal seam, typically less than 2 meters in most Meghalaya hills.

The second type is referred to as box-cutting. In this method, a rectangular opening, ranging from 10 to 100 sqm, is created. Through this opening, a vertical pit is dug, reaching depths of 100 to 400 feet. Once the coal seam is identified, rat-hole-sized tunnels are excavated horizontally, providing a pathway for workers to extract the coal.

Uttarkashi Tunnel Collapse Incident

The Uttarkashi Tunnel Collapse incident unfolded as a challenging rescue mission lasting seventeen days, where 41 workers were trapped inside the collapsed Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi. The rescue operation involved drilling through a 60-meter stretch of rubble, with National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel using a steel chute for extraction.

Various methods were employed, including vertical drilling, auger mining, and ultimately resorting to the expertise of ‘rat miners’ to complete the drilling process successfully. The incident drew attention to the hazardous conditions in certain mining practices and the complexities involved in rescue operations.

Rat Hole Mining Technique

Rat-hole mining is a controversial method of extracting coal from narrow, horizontal seams. The technique involves digging small pits, or “rat holes”, that are large enough for one person to enter and extract coal. Once the miners reach the coal seam, they make sideways tunnels to extract the coal. The coal is then dumped nearby and transported via highways. Rat-hole mining is prevalent in the Northeastern states of India, especially in Meghalaya. It was once popular in Meghalaya because coal deposits are not deep.

Rat Hole Mining in India

Rat Hole Mining in India, notably prevalent in Meghalaya, involves illegally excavating coal through narrow, hazardous tunnels resembling rat holes. Lacking proper regulations, this primitive method raises environmental concerns, including deforestation and water pollution. Safety issues, such as accidents and fatalities, further underscore its risks. Despite a ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal in 2014 and reinforced in 2015, enforcement remains a challenge, necessitating urgent attention to safeguard both the environment and the well-being of workers.

Types of Rat-Hole Mining

Side-Cutting Procedure

In this mining technique, narrow tunnels are meticulously excavated on the slopes of hills. Workers delve inside these tunnels until they locate the coal seam. Remarkably, the coal seam found in the hills of Meghalaya is notably thin, measuring less than 2 meters in most cases.

Box-Cutting Method

Contrastingly, the box-cutting method involves the creation of a rectangular opening, varying in size from 10 to 100 sqm. Through this opening, a vertical pit is meticulously dug to depths ranging from 100 to 400 feet. Once the coal seam is identified, workers proceed to carve rat-hole-sized tunnels horizontally, providing a pathway for the extraction of coal.

How Banned Rat-Hole Mining Saved India’s Trapped Workers?

In India, state officials enlisted the help of “rat-hole” miners to rescue 41 workers trapped in a tunnel after a collapse. The miners were adept at navigating tight spaces and manually clearing debris. They worked in two teams of three, with one person drilling, one collecting debris, and one pushing the debris out of the pipe. After 17 days, the workers were successfully pulled out.

“Rat-hole” mining is a banned method of manual coal extraction that involves digging narrow, vertical shafts into the ground. The name comes from the resemblance to rats digging pits. The pits are just big enough for workers to descend using ropes or bamboo ladders to extract coal. The practice became illegal in the 1970s.

Why was Rat-Hole Mining Banned?

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) instituted a ban on rat-hole mining, reiterating the prohibition in 2015. The NGT highlighted numerous instances where this mining method, particularly prevalent in Meghalaya, led to fatal consequences during the rainy season due to water flooding into mining areas. Subsequently, the Meghalaya state government appealed the NGT’s order, seeking judicial review, with the matter eventually reaching the Supreme Court.

Rat Hole Mining: Environmental and safety concerns

Rat hole mining presents substantial risks to both safety and the environment. These mines operate without adequate regulation, neglecting crucial safety measures like proper ventilation, structural support, and safety gear for workers. Furthermore, the mining process contributes to issues such as land degradation, deforestation, and water pollution.

Criticism of this mining method stems from its perilous working conditions, environmental harm, and frequent accidents resulting in injuries and fatalities. Despite regulatory efforts to control or prohibit such practices, they persist due to economic factors and the lack of viable alternative livelihoods for the local population.

Rat Hole Mining UPSC

Rat Hole Mining, notably practiced in Meghalaya, involves extracting coal through narrow, hazardous tunnels. These makeshift mines lack regulations, posing serious safety risks due to inadequate ventilation, structural support, and safety gear for workers. Beyond endangering lives, this method contributes to environmental degradation, including deforestation and water pollution. Despite bans and criticisms, economic factors and the absence of alternative livelihoods often perpetuate the persistence of rat hole mining, highlighting the ongoing challenges in curbing this hazardous practice.

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Rat Hole Mining FAQs

What is Rat Hole Mining?

Rat Hole Mining is a manual method of extracting coal through narrow, hazardous tunnels, prevalent in Meghalaya, India.

Why is Rat Hole Mining considered hazardous?

It lacks safety measures, such as proper ventilation and structural support, posing risks of accidents and health hazards for workers.

Why was Rat Hole Mining banned in India?

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned it in 2014 due to environmental concerns, safety hazards, and instances of fatalities during the rainy season.

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