In an unexpected turn of events, a rat hole mining practice previously prohibited due to safety concerns has proven to be the savior for 41 workers ensnared within a tunnel in Uttarakhand. The reliance on advanced, imported machinery during the protracted rescue operation faltered, leading to the initiation of rat-hole mining as a last resort.
The commencement of rat hole mining to liberate the trapped workers transpired yesterday after a 25-tonne auger machine, employed in the final stages of the intricate operation, malfunctioned. Despite being banned for its perceived hazards, this manual drilling technique showcased remarkable progress, bringing the diggers within mere meters of the workers who had been confined for an arduous 17 days.
But what exactly is rat hole mining?
This unconventional method involves extracting coal through small pits, not exceeding 4 feet in width. Once miners reach the coal seam, lateral tunnels are created to extract the coal, which is then deposited nearby and later transported via highways. In this method, workers enter the mines, utilizing hand-held tools for excavation.
Particularly prevalent in Meghalaya, where the coal seam’s thinness renders other methods economically unviable, rat-hole mining often sees children engaging in this perilous occupation due to limited livelihood options in the state. Many children even pose as adults to secure employment in such mines.
The ban on rat hole mining by the National Green Tribunal in 2014 was motivated by its unscientific nature, yet the practice persists, marked by numerous accidents and fatalities in the northeastern state. Tragic incidents in 2018 and 2021, involving trapped miners in flooded mines, underscored the risks and environmental repercussions associated with this method.
Despite its outlawed status, rat hole mining remains a crucial revenue source for state governments, leading to legal challenges against the ban. The Manipur government has contested the National Green Tribunal’s prohibition, arguing the absence of feasible alternatives. A panel appointed by the Meghalaya High Court in 2022 confirmed the ongoing prevalence of rat-hole mining in Meghalaya.
In the specific context of the Uttarakhand operation, the proscribed practice has been resorted to after an American auger machine failed to penetrate the debris obstructing the workers’ escape. Although two teams comprising a total of 12 specialists were flown in from Delhi, the Uttarakhand government’s nodal officer clarified that these experts were not rat-hole miners but adept in the technique.
Employing hand-held tools, these specialists diligently work within the 800 mm pipe, manually removing debris and taking turns due to the exhausting nature of the task. Additionally, they are skilled in overcoming metal barriers, according to rescue teams overseeing the operation.