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What is rat-hole mining, a banned practice that India opted to free 41 trapped workers

Rat-hole mining involves security concerns and is also potentially hazardous for the environment.

Manual drilling underway as rescue operations in the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. (ANI Photo)

By: Shubham Ghosh

AFTER technology failed to bring much relief to 41 workers trapped inside a collapsed under-construction tunnel in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, India resorted to an outlawed mining practice to free the men.

Officials decided to begin rat-hole mining to bring out the trapped workers after a 25-ton auger machine broke down and was irreparable. The method of manual drilling made quick progress and the rescue teams were just metres away from reaching the workers who have been fighting to live on for 17 days.

What is rat-hole mining and why is it banned in India?

Rat-hole mining is a method by which coal is dug out by making small pits that are not more than four feet wide. Tunnels are made sideways once the miners reach the coal seam to extract the coal. In this procedure, the workers enter the mines and manually dig the soil. Such practice is used in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya where the coal seam and any other method of digging out the coal can be risky, economically and otherwise. The tunnels’ small size makes children the best fit for the dangerous job but given the economic backwardness in the state, many agree to do it.

In 2014, India’s National Green Tribunal put a ban on rat-hole mining but still it is being used in many parts and even results in deaths in the north-eastern state. Five years ago, 15 men who were engaged in rat-hole mining got trapped inside a flooded mine. A prolonged rescue operation followed but only two bodies could be recovered. A similar incident happened in 2021 when five miners got trapped in a flooded mine and only three bodies were found.

The procedure is also known to be environmentally hazardous.

The outlawed mining practice was chosen to rescue the trapped workers inside the collapsed under-construction tunnel in Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand after the American auger machine failed to reach them. Two teams of specialists were flown in from Delhi to carry out the challenging task. They are not rat-hole miners but experts in the technique, officials clarified.

The work is tiring and the diggers were taking turns to do it.

The incident happened on November 12 and since then, authorities have been providing the trapped workers with food, medicine and mental strength to survive the moments.

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