Coal mining threatens Meghalaya caves

Even before the caves in Meghalaya can reveal clues to climate change, rampant mining is destroying their wealth. AMARJYOTI BORAH goes deep into the issue

Meghalaya carries a bewitching world in its belly. The natural caves found in Jaintia Hills are a storehouse of geological treasures. Rivers and streams flow through some of their dark, damp chambers, lending an other-worldly beauty to the caves. The rocky roof hangs so low at times that the explorer has to crawl on all fours. And to explore there is a lot: various life forms and geomorphological features carrying records of climate change in a different era.

These treasures may just be lost before they are fully appreciated because rampant coal mining is systematically destroying these caves. Jaintia Hills is also a major coal producing area, with an estimated 40 million tonnes of coal reserve. The state government, which had promised to formulate a comprehensive policy to regulate private coal mining and limestone quarries over one-and-a-half years ago, is yet to deliver. Prompted by a public-interest petition, filed in the Supreme Court by a group involved in mapping caves, the government set up an expert committee in August, 2006, to look into unregulated mining activity in the state. Nothing much has happened since.

The government has a ready excuse. "There are many members in the committee, and many are from other states like Delhi and Jharkhand. It takes time to receive all the recommendations from all the members and frame the final policy. The draft mining policy is ready and will be out soon,' says Arindom Som, the state mining secretary.

While the government still has no idea how it is going to control it, indiscriminate mining has begun to threaten the famed Krem Liat Prah-Um Lm-Labit cave system in Jaintia Hills, the longest in India at 30.9 km. Jaintia Hills is part of the Meghalaya plateau made of rocks belonging to the Archean (2.5-4 billion years ago) and Tertiary periods (63 million to 2 million years ago). Meghalaya has the largest concentration of caves in the subcontinent. About a thousand caves were discovered in the past decade and most of these are yet to be explored and mapped.

Over the years, 118 cave passages, stretching across 148 km, have been mapped on the Nongklieh-Shnongrim ridge, 60 km from Jowai town in Jaintia Hills. The ridge has India's longest Krem Liat Prah and third longest Krem Umthloo cave passages.

Cave sediments and stalagmites