Twenty-five days ago, 15 young men descended into a four-feet-wide 'rathole' coal mine in the tree-covered ranges of East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, unaware of the ordeal that awaited them. On the fateful day, the young men, who are mostly under 25 years of age, started work as per usual but were soon trapped in by the water seeping in from the nearby Lytein river.
That was December 13. Today, even on January 6, the authorities have failed to find even a single trace of the trapped miners despite continuous efforts by the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), Indian Navy and private organisations.
Problems in the rescue of Meghalaya cave miners:
Illegal mining: The foremost problem being faced by the team of rescue workers is the lack of blueprint of the area. According to the Centre's response to the Supreme Court, the miners are trapped in one of the ratholes in a 5 square kilometre area, which was closed off for mining in 2014 after an order from National Green Tribunal. The team has no way of knowing which rathole to dig or which way to navigate for the rescue.
Waterlogging: The water gushing in from the nearby river has made it impossible for divers to go in and look for trapped miners. A team of NDRF divers tried on day 1 but had to return as the water level was too high. Subsequently, highly-skilled Navy divers were called, but they also failed to dive in unless the water level receded a bit. Over the course of 25 days, local water pumps have been replaced by the specialised ones from Odisha and now Kirloskar company's special pump have been employed in the job. But the water level is yet to recede. Rescue divers from the Indian Navy and the NDRF are yet to be able to make any significant impact in their search and rescue operations as the water level is still beyond 100 feet, the safe diving capacity for the divers. The water level at the main shaft where the miners are trapped is about 160 feet, he said, adding that total depth of the main shaft is about 370 feet.
Furthermore, the government told SC that the team of rescuers was yet to locate the source of river seepage into the cave system. Which implies that no matter how much water the pumps are able to pump out, the problem is not likely to solve as river water will reflood the mines.
Difficult terrain: The entries to the cave system are located atop hills fully covered in trees in the East Jaintia Hills district. There is no direct road or train to the spot. Even a person on foot has to trek for several hours to reach the spot. Taking hevay rescue equipement and teams to the rescue operation site has been proving to be a humongous task.
Lack of coordination in rescue efforts: Describing the rescue operation as "very slow", mining expert and award-winning rescuer Jaswant Singh Gill on Wednesday said, "There is no coordination at all. Safety of the human lives is most important. In this kind of an emergency situation, we expect they should work like a machine and synchronise like a machine." "They need to get the mining map to know from where the water has entered the coalmine ... there are many abandoned flooded coalmines and those boys (trapped miners) have punctured into the wall of another abandoned mine," Gill told IANS on Wednesday.
Why is Meghalaya rescue mission different than Thai cave rescue mission:
Thai cave rescue mission, in which a football team was trapped inside a cave system in Thailand in June-July 2018, was different from the Meghalaya miners rescue mission because the rescue workers had a blueprint of the cave system, the government told SC. In Meghalaya, the coal mines are illegal, hence there is no blueprint available. Additionally, the Thai caves had air pockets through which the oxygen passed consistently, a luxury unlikely afforded by trapped miners as the cave tunnels are barely three to four feet wide, often enough to fit in one man at a time.
Is there any hope for Meghalaya miners?
Even as the families of trapped miners lost hope three-weeks after the incident, hope must not be lost as there have been miraculous incidents in the past where people have been rescued from coal mines after days of being trapped. In 2010, 33 workers were rescued from a coal mine after 69 days in Mexico. It took an army of rescue workers, including US space agency NASA and 12 private corporations to bring the 33 back from hallows of the earth. Interestingly, none of the 33 miners suffered any health repercussions due to the incident.
Even in the recent case in Thailand, 12 school children and their football coach were found alive and well inside a flooded cave after two weeks. The rescue had stunned the entire world.
Hopefully, the miracle will repeat itself and the rescue workers will find the 15 Meghalaya miners healthy and hearty.