Tagore’s fireflies were his fancies, “specks of living light twinkling in the dark”. In the hostile “rat-hole” mines of  Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills, where each day is a game of death, thrust with a pickaxe and a head torch, what happens to the fancies that are born into the life of coal mines? Chandrasekhar Reddy’s documentary Fireflies in the Abyss, slated for a pan-India release on 1 July, explores the fate of the mining community living in the remote areas of the Northeast (mostly, immigrants from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal).

Reddy’s film, shot in 2012 focuses on life in the mining camp with the story of an 11-year-old boy named Suraj and his family that migrated from Nepal. The rat-hole mines are narrow strips of coal requiring miners to descend steep, sheer chutes and burrow into narrow horizontal tunnels to scratch coal out of hard rock, using traditional equipment such as a pickaxe and a head torch. “Going down those mineshafts and into the rat-holes is a spine-chilling experience initially. But if the miners were spending half their day in there, I had to know how and what they did, so I was not left with an option but to go in with them. The initial experience of being in the mine was of intense claustrophobia, but I got used to it. What was at the back of my mind was that any time there could be a mishap. And these are quite common in the mines — tunnels collapsing, water flooding, ladders snapping, and so on,” Reddy tells Guardian 20 while recalling his experiences of shooting the film with no budget for a crew or more elaborate equipment.

“Of course being a one-man crew had its technical challenges, but it actually worked in favour of the film. A certain intimacy was achieved which would not have been possible with a larger crew. The other challenge that I had to face was the fact that I could lose access to filming anytime — in a place where there is illegal mining going on, you are not very welcome with a camera,” adds Reddy.

Suraj works in such a rat-hole. Left without a mother, he lives with his alcoholic father and elder sister in a makeshift shack like other miners. He hopes to go to school someday but since he cannot rely on his alcoholic father for support, working in the mines is the only way he can earn and take charge of his own life. This precarious world falls apart when his elder sister (who has a child to raise) decides to leave the mines and go back home to Nepal. Suraj, estranged from home at a very early age, does not feel it necessary to go back to Nepal with his sister. But the crisis deepens when his best friend, Shaila, who also works in the mines, is sent off to Nepal to attend school. As fear of losing out on loved ones with each passing day grips him, Suraj simply disappears from the camp one fine morning and no one knows where he is gone. His sister leaves for Nepal with a vague knowledge that he may be with some friends. It is later discovered that Suraj has returned to some friends (boys not much older than himself) at a former mining camp, and with their help has enrolled himself at a local school.

But the film ends with a close shot of Suraj dragging the minecart to the rat-hole. He has now returned to the camp where he had spent his formative years and taken up mining again, unsure of whether he can continue with school because he is neck-deep in debt to his friends who had helped him cover the expenses of his first year of education. 

Mining in Jaintia Hills used to be a small scale practice, controlled by individuals who owned the land. “After coal was nationalised in 1973, it meant that the rights of coal mining would then lie only with the central government. Private parties could mine only if the government auctions off some coal blocks in those areas, nothing of which happened ever in Meghalaya. Miners of Jaintia Hills would export coal to Bangladesh, to Assam,  and from Assam to other places. In the ’80s, this issue came up,” says Arwat Challam. Challam is part of Samrakshan Trust that works for community-based conservation of biodiversity in the South Garo Hills district. He has constantly been trying to collect information on the illegal position of coal mining in the state through RTIs for the past several years.

“The state government got a notification from the Centre and one of the MPs then (cannot recall the name now) went to Delhi to the Ministry of Coal. It was written back to the state government that Meghalaya could carry about the practice only after having taken a sub-lease from Coal India or M.M.D.C. But the process was never followed,” Challam adds. 

Suraj works in such a rat-hole. Left without a mother, he lives with his alcoholic father and elder sister in a makeshift shack like other miners.

In view of the unscientific and unregulated rat-hole coal mining operations in the Jaintia Hills, the National Green Tribunal (N.G.T.) bench chaired by Justice P. Jyothimani ordered in 2014 that this illegal mining and illegal transport of coal must be stopped forthwith throughout the state, asking the Meghalaya government to evolve an appropriate scheme and statutory rules (although the state, under Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, conforming to the whole requirement of statutory laws pertaining to environment safety, labour laws, etc. had come up with the Meghalaya Mines & Minerals Development Policy — M.M.M.D.P., 2012 — which has not been operationalised).

“I have made a couple of visits since the mining ban, most recently in December 2015. Trucks still ply with coal down to Bangladesh and Assam. Much of the mining community — primarily the immigrant labourers have returned to their homes. Of course, all those who have no place to go to have remained — this includes Suraj and his father. Most of the locals have also been impacted by the drop in their incomes. But coal mining is also closely linked to insurgency activities that happen in the state, and that is primarily also the reason that mining continues in places where law and order can’t reach. This is particularly rampant in the Garo Hills region of Meghalaya. The M.M.M.D.P., 2012, is still not operationalised. In fact, Vincent Pala, a prominent politician, Lok Sabha member and coal baron has even moved a motion in parliament, but with little success, to exempt Meghalaya from the purview of Central Coal laws,” says Reddy.

“The State government loses out on royalty with the mining ban, because people who transfer the coal pay royalty to the state government. Hence, Sangma is now looking for invoking Paragraph 12A(b) of the 6th Schedule of the Constitution as a solution to the NGT ban as that would enable it to regulate mining activities in the state in accordance with M.M.M.D.P, 2012,” says Challam.  This would in turn mean making M.M.M.D.P., 2012, operational in accordance with the statutory laws with respect to environment safety, labour safety, so forth.

“After all, based on a case argued by Dima Hasao Student Union from Assam and on a report by O.P. Singh, professor of environmental studies of North Eastern Hills, University of Shillong, that discussed the environmental concerns over rat-hole mining activities in Jaintia Hills, the ban was proposed,” smirks Challam.

“Coal has high sulphur content and mixes with water to give sulphuric acid which kills all living beings. Mines are still open, still exposed and it is acid mine drainage, particularly during monsoons, that is causing so much of water pollution. Acid mine happens when water comes in contact with coal. So the real issue here is regulating mining, opting for scientific mining activities for a better environment and better livelihood of those dependent on it,” says Challam. For it goes without saying how important an economic activity it is for the mining community of the Northeast.

As we wait for the state to formulate the concession rules for implementation of M.M.M.D.P., 2012, let Reddy’s film, the only docu-feature from India to have been selected at the prestigious Hot Docs, Canadian International Documentary Festival, held earlier this year, offer you a sneak peek into how the multi-crore rat-hole coal mining industry functioned before the Meghalaya government ordered for its ban following orders from the N.G.T.

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