Over two weeks after a rat-hole mine collapsed in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills, trapping 15 people underground, the Indian Air Force has finally come forward to help. Kirloskar Brothers -- an Indian heavy equipment firm -- has offered to expedite the rescue operation by sending powerful pumps to draw water from the pit, and a team of experts from state-run Coal India Limited is being rushed to the spot to oversee the exercise.
However, things are looking a little too bleak already. Divers detected a foul smell emanating from the pit today, giving rise to fears that it could be from that of decomposing bodies below. Rescue operations had to be suspended for a brief period earlier this week after low-capacity pumps being used since the accident on December 13 proved incapable of drawing water from the pit faster than the rate at which it was being flooded by a nearby river.
The low-capacity pumps had to be shut down because they were found to be ineffectual, officials with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) -- which is carrying out rescue efforts in cooperation with state agencies -- said. They now hope that the private firm's pumps, besides more such equipment being sourced by Coal India from its mines in West Bengal's Asansol and Jharkhand's Dhanbad, will do a better job at draining the illegal mine in the coming days.
Sources in the Air Force said it decided to cooperate after receiving a request to this effect from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). It has deployed Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules aircraft to transport 10 heavy-duty pumps from Bhubaneswar to Guwahati, following which the equipment will be flown to the East Jaintia Hills by chopper.
The NDRF said its divers can operate effectively only after the water level in the mine falls from 70 to 40 feet. "This is one of the most challenging operations in the history of our organisation. Our divers are not trained for a situation of this magnitude," said SK Shastri, who is leading the 1st battalion of the NDRF.
The crisis took a political turn earlier this week, with main opposition Congress alleging that Chief Minister Conrad Sangma had handled the crisis in a "sloppy" manner. Party president Rahul Gandhi also taunted Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a tweet, accusing him of posing for photographs while the miners remained trapped in precarious conditions.
Mr Sangma said it was not prudent to "play politics" on such a sensitive issue. "There is no question of calling off the rescue operation, it is only going to be taken up at a different level now. The Union home ministry is in touch, and will be helping us. We will continue with our rescue efforts efforts," he told NDTV.
Critics, however, maintain that the state government did little to expedite the rescue mission in the initial days. Sources say nearly a week had passed before the East Jaintia Hills administration sent a letter requesting the Sangma government for acquiring powerful pumps, and yet another went by before Coal India received a request for aid.
Mining was banned across mineral-rich Meghalaya in 2014 after environmentalists raised concerns of groundwater pollution. However, that did not deter local residents from illegally extracting coal on the sly through rat-hole mines, which involves digging into the side of hills and then burrowing horizontal tunnels to reach coal seams.