Mining affected areas and its impact on livelihoods: Meghalaya

There is a need for management of acid mine drainage and contaminated water in mining areas (Image: Environmental Change and Security Program/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA)
There is a need for management of acid mine drainage and contaminated water in mining areas (Image: Environmental Change and Security Program/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA)
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Meghalaya has a predominantly agrarian economy. In addition to agriculture and horticulture, people in rural areas are also dependent on mining and mining-related activities, fishing, hunting, collection of non-timber forest products, firewood and charcoal business for their livelihood and income generation.

A number of valuable minerals are found in different parts of Meghalaya. Of these, coal and limestone have been mined in large areas of Meghalaya covering all the three Hill Regions. Sand and stone mining from the hills and river beds is also common.

This report on mining-affected areas and their impact on livelihood in Meghalaya is based on both, secondary and primary data. It includes detailed information on the effect of mining on the environment and natural resources with special emphasis on soil, water and biodiversity. It also includes information on the impact of mining on the livelihood of the people with particular reference to agriculture including horticulture, livestock, aquaculture and fishery.

Mining in Meghalaya

Mining in Meghalaya is mostly done in an unscientific manner with no consideration to environmental protection and social responsibility. The absence of any post-mining treatment and restoration of degraded ecosystems worsen the situation with long term environmental and social implications.

Coal mining

Coal is an important mineral resource of Meghalaya and is mined through a primitive mining method commonly known as rat-hole mining. The coal deposits present on the hill-slopes and along the riversides are mined by ‘side-cutting'. However, coal present underground in plain land is mined through a shaft/pit by the ‘box cutting’ method.

Coal mining in Meghalaya is small scale and an unorganized venture controlled by individuals, who own the land. However, collectively coal mining engages thousands of people in mining and mining-related activities spread in wide areas of all three Hills Regions of the State.

Limestone mining

Limestone is another abundantly found mineral and is mainly extracted for manufacturing cement in the state itself as well as in the neighbouring state of Assam. It is also exported to Bangladesh.

Limestone extraction in Meghalaya is done by open cast mining. The mining in Jaintia Hills is mostly done by cement industries. Due to the unique landholding system in Meghalaya, the mining of limestone is also carried out by individual landowners. The mining done by the cement industries is mechanized using heavy machinery. On the other hand, extraction by individual landowners is semi-mechanical and slow.

Sand and stone mining

Sand and stone mining is also taking place from riverbed and hillsides to cater to the local needs in the state as well as of neighbouring state.

Environmental impact of mining

The mining of minerals in Meghalaya has provided employment opportunity and newer livelihood options to the local people. To some extent, it has also contributed to the industrial and economic development of the state. However, mining, particularly mining of coal and limestone has severely affected the land and soil, water, air, fishery, forest, biodiversity, agriculture and agricultural production, socio-economy etc. in the mining areas.

Sustainable livelihood options of the people have been affected. The benefits seem to be short term and limited to a small number of people.

Impact on water

The water bodies of the coal mining areas are the greatest victims in terms of qualitative degradation and quantitative depletion. The streams and rivers are badly affected by contamination of acid mine drainage originating from mines and spoils, leaching of heavy metals, organic enrichment and silting by coal and sand particles.

The water of streams and rivers of all three regions (Jaintia, Khasi and Garo) have been found affected by coal mining. The adverse effects are severe in Jaintia Hills as most of the streams in coal mining areas have become highly acidic. However, in Garo Hills, only a few rivers or stretches of rivers have turned acidic due to coal mining.

Due to the Karst topography of Meghalaya, only a few perennial surface water bodies are present in coal and limestone deposit areas leading to water scarcity in the lean period. Mining of coal and limestone as well as the establishment of cement plants in the region have further aggravated the water scarcity in the area. Due to excavation of land and disturbance of landscape, many streams in the area have become seasonal as water of streams percolates into the ground.

In many areas, people face real difficulty in fetching clean drinking water. Poor people are worst affected. Also, the entire coal mining area of the Jaintia Hills is dotted with mine pits and caves from where surface water percolates into the ground. As a result, smaller streams and rivers of the area, which served as lifelines for the people are either completely disappearing or becoming seasonal. Consequently, the area is facing an acute shortage of clean drinking and irrigation water either due to pollution of available water or due to the percolation of surface water into the ground.

Mining activity has come into direct competition with agriculture and has adversely affected the agricultural land and soil and crop growth and production. The pollution of air, water and soil caused by mining activities has affected the agriculture/ horticulture, fisheries and rearing of livestock, directly and indirectly leading to degradation of soil quality and reduction in cropped area and agriculture productivity.

Restoration and rehabilitation of mining-affected areas

The report suggests a number of measures for eco-restoration of the degraded areas and rehabilitation of peoples’ livelihoods such as (a) Urgent need for a holistic policy on mining of minerals in Meghalaya, and (b) Regulation of mining under prevailing central and state legislations.

Activities suggested in the report include proper storage of overburden; construction of a wall around the mine pits; mine reclamation by filling the mine pits; landscaping, compaction and covering of overburden; conservation of topsoil; management of acid mine drainage and contaminated water; construction of designated area for storage of coal; prohibition of mining near water sources; active and passive treatment of acid mine drainage area and contaminated water; revegetation of the mining-affected area etc.); rendering alternative livelihood options to the people (like sericulture, beekeeping, traditional horticulture, cultivation of mushroom, areca nut and local fruits etc.); imparting awareness, training and skill development to the local people etc.

People should be educated regarding the rules and regulations, the importance of a healthy environment, current government programs, the role of forest, health hazards of mining, requisite precautions and safety measures for environmental and socio-economic development leading to human wellbeing.

Some good practices of aquaculture/fishery, strawberry cultivation, turmeric cultivation relevant to restoration and rehabilitation of mining-affected area and providing alternative livelihood options to the people of the mining-affected areas are appended with the report.

The full report is available for download below.  

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