Can the effects of mining be undone?

Coal mining in Meghalaya has ruined the landscape and the water sources. Even if there is a will to restore these water bodies, there are several obstacles in the way.
Coal mines in Meghalaya (Source: The Hindu) Coal mines in Meghalaya (Source: The Hindu)

Meghalaya is rich in minerals, especially coal. This has led to rampant mining in the state. Large scale denudation of forest cover, scarcity of water, destruction of water sources, pollution of air, water and soil, and degradation of agricultural lands are some of the conspicuous environmental implications of coal mining. Despite this, no significant restoration activities have been undertaken in the area.

Some impacts of coal mining on water resources are:

  • Degradation and depletion of water resources

The water bodies are the greatest victims of coal mining in Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya. Studies by NEHU reveal that a large number of rivers and streams are badly affected by contamination of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD)- or the outflow of acidic water from mines-, leaching of heavy metals, organic enrichment and silting by coal and sand particles. Consequently, the area is facing acute shortage of clean drinking and irrigation water.

  •  Acidification of soil

Acidic water has made the soil acidic and rich in inorganic components like various salts and poor in organic content such as carbon-rich humus. Deterioration of soil quality severely affects the crop growth and yield in the area.

Researchers have suggested measures such as filling of mine pits, checking the quality of seepage from mines and checking the contamination of water bodies and agricultural fields to reduce problems of environmental damage. Despite the availability of knowledge and technology, these measures have not been undertaken. Why?

Impediments to restoration

  • Land tenure system: Since most of the land is under individual or community ownership, it is difficult to find land to undertake activities such as constructing wetlands and structures to neutralise acidity.
  • Policy and regulations: Mining Policy in Meghalaya has been formulated only recently and its full scope is yet to be understood by most mine owners, regulators, NGOs and academicians. Unsurprisingly, there is hardly any activity for restriction of environmental degradation.Since the policy is still in its nascent stage, it is not being implemented. 
  • Lack of appreciation of sustainability: The benefit of coal mining is going to a small group of people, largely the landholders and people with large contracts. The majority, including labourers have no share in the profits. Despite this, there is very little discourse on sustainability.
  • Awareness and peoples' participation: Awareness must be created so that people can come forward and volunteer for restoration activities.

It is essential that we take serious note of resource degradation and depletion in the mountains of Northeastern India and try to find solutions to the impediments listed in this paper.

This post presents a paper received for the Sustainable Mountain Development Summit-III held at Kohima, Nagaland, from September 25-27, 2013.

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