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Uttarakhand tunnel collapse: Who are rat hole miners and how do they work?

A mining technique that has been banned in India over safety concerns proved instrumental in rescuing the 41 trapped workers

Uttrakhand tunnel rescue, rat miners, rat mining

Photo: PTI

BS Web Team New Delhi

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Who would have guessed that the banned practice of rat hole mining would come to the rescue of the workers trapped inside the collapsed tunnel in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand, especially after sophisticated equipment such as the auger drilling machine failed to create a rescue passage? But what exactly is this practice, and why was it banned? Let's take a look.

Who are rat hole miners?

Rat hole mining is mainly prevalent in Meghalaya, especially in the West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills and West Khasi Hills. It involves manually digging up small tunnels, around 3-4 feet, through which workers enter and extract coal. 

Considered dangerous, it involves miners going deep inside horizontal tunnels, which are typically built using primitive equipment. Such practices frequently result in accidents, which in some circumstances result in fatalities. 

There have been some reports of rat hole mining in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, but experts claim that coal seams in major coal-producing states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are thicker than in Meghalaya, thereby resulting in fewer incidences.

Why is it called rat hole mining?

The term "rat hole" refers to the narrow pits dug into the ground, typically large enough for one person to fit and extract coal, according to The Indian Express.

Once the pits are dug, miners descend using ropes or bamboo ladders to reach the bottom of the tiny holes. The coal is then extracted manually using tools like pickaxes, shovels, and baskets.

What are rat hole miner's special skills?

Rat miners, as they are often called, use the side-cutting technique, in which they dig narrow tunnels on hill slopes through which miners go inside to reach the coal seam. This technique came in handy while manually digging the last 15 metres of the collapsed tunnel at Silkyara to create the evacuation passage.

Usually, miners first dig a vertical hole to descend into the mine. Once they hit the coal seam, the miners start digging horizontally in order to extract as much coal as possible. The holes can be as much as 200 feet in some cases. Their experience under high altitudes, as well as in cramped and enclosed spaces, came in handy during the rescue operation in Uttarakhand.

Why is rat hole mining banned in India?

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned rat-hole mining in 2014 for being unscientific, although the practice remains widespread. Several accidents have resulted in the deaths of rat-hole miners in the Northeast. In 2018, 15 men involved in illegal mining were trapped inside a flooded mine. Only two bodies could be recovered in the course of the rescue operation that lasted for more than two months. 

Another such accident took place in 2021 when five miners were trapped in a flooded mine. Three bodies were found before rescue teams called off the operation after a month. Add to this the environmental pollution caused by this method.

Mining, however, is a key source of revenue for the state government. The Manipur government has contested the NGT ban, claiming that there is no other feasible mining option for the region. A panel appointed by the Meghalaya High Court in 2022 found rat-hole mining continues unabated in Meghalaya.  

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First Published: Nov 29 2023 | 11:41 AM IST

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