The mining practice came to the rescue after heavy machines broke down.
The rat-hole mining technique, which was outlawed in 2014, was used to clear the last few meters in the operation to rescue 41 workers trapped in the collapsed Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand for the last 17 days. All workers were successfully pulled out from the tunnel in approximately an hour in an operation that started around 8 pm.
During the media briefing, member of the National Disaster Management Authority, Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain (Retired) responded to a question on using the rat-hole mining technique, which is outlawed by the National Green Tribunal. "The rat-hole mining may be illegal but a rat-hole miner's talent and experience is being used," he said.
"The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned the technique in 2014 for coal mining, but this is a skill used and in construction sites, the situation is not always comfortable for workers. Not only rat mines but people involved in gas-cutting operations, it was not easy for them too. They used to work for an hour and then come out. This is a special situation where we have to save lives. They are technicians and we are using their skills and their capabilities to rescue the workers," another official added to Lt General Hasnain's point.
The mining practice came to the rescue after heavy machines broke down and failed to provide any breakthrough.
Rat-hole mining to rescue the trapped workers began yesterday after a 25-tonne auger machine failed in the last leg of the challenging operation.
Rat-hole mining is a method of extracting coal by digging very small pits, not more than 4 feet wide. Once the miners reach the coal seam, tunnels are made sideways to extract the coal.
The coal brought out is dumped nearby and later transported via highways. In rat-hole mining, workers enter the mines and use hand-held tools to dig. This is the most common method of mining in Meghalaya, where the coal seam is very thin and any other method risks being economically unviable.
The small size of the tunnels makes children the best fit for the hazardous job, and in a state that has limited options for livelihood, many line up for the risky job. Many children also pose as adults to get work in such mines.
Why Was It Banned
The National Green Tribunal banned rat-hole mining in 2014 for being unscientific, but the practice continues to be rampant. Several accidents have resulted in the deaths of rat-hole miners in the Northeastern state.
In 2018, 15 men involved in illegal mining were trapped inside a flooded mine. Only two bodies could be recovered in the course of the rescue operation that lasted for more than two months.
Another such accident took place in 2021 when five miners were trapped in a flooded mine. Three bodies were found before rescue teams called off the operation after a month. Add to this the environmental pollution caused by this method.
All workers were successfully pulled out from the tunnel in approximately an hour.
The Indian Air Force has been called in and its twin-rotor heavy lift helicopter, Chinook. The helicopter is present at the Chinyalisaur airstrip in Uttarkashi to airlift the workers after they are rescued from the Silkyara tunnel.
"The last time to fly the Chinook helicopter is 4:30 pm. We will not fly it during the night. Since there is a delay, the workers will be brought the next morning," Lt General Hasnain said.
"A 30-bed facility is ready in the District Hospital and a 10-bed facility is also ready at the site. If there is urgency, workers can be brought to Rishikesh in 1 or 2 ambulances," he added.