"We have proposed to overhaul the state mining policy to establish a joint government-civil society commission to monitor and advice on environmental issues," Sangma said at the concluding session of a day-long citizen’s conference on environmental governance.

He said that there have been concerns raised in certain quarters that the policy in its present form is weak so it needs to be given a relook before implementation. "We want to have wide consultations with all stakeholders and create mass awareness on the policy and then implement, not impose it, on the people," he said.

Stressing on the need for a "balanced development" to ensure economic growth, on one hand, and environmental sustainability, he said, "We also need to create sustainable livelihoods for our people, and the first step towards that is to acclimatize the citizens on our development plans and strategies."

Rat-hole mining is a primitive method that entails clearing ground vegetation and digging pits ranging from five to 100 square meters to reach the coal seams. Meghalaya has a total coal reserve of 640 million tones. The coal is high in sulphur content.

Most of this coal reserve is mined unscientifically by individuals and communities. Due to unscientific coal mining, the water sources of many rivers, especially in Jaintia Hills district have turned acidic.

Mining activities in Meghalaya are controlled by the indigenous people of the state who own the land. Workers and children go deep into these rat-holes and extract the coal using traditional tools. Makeshift bamboo ladders take miners down into the pits to chip away through two-feet-high tunnels.

Once the coal has been extracted, these mines are abandoned and left exposed in several cases. In Cherrapunjee region, once famous for its heaviest rainfall, environmental abuse has almost reduced the region to a barren landscape.

The region is now pockmarked by abandoned rat-hole coal mines and barren hills. Similar is the case in other districts.

(Agencies)

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