Even after a month of the incident, as the rescuers tried their best to find the miners, there were several administrative loopholes and lack of coordination which led to unassailable delay, leaving the victims’ fates hanging in balance
Chronology of a disaster
13 Dec, 2018: Mine collapses with 15 trapped inside a ‘rat hole’ illegal mine after a miner breached a wall which was holding back water from the nearby Lytein River. National Disaster Response Force & State Disaster Response Force arrives at the scene. NDRF personnel are equipped with 25hp pumps and immediately learn that the pumps are not sufficient as water from the river is replacing water being pumped out, so they ask for more powerful pumps.
17 Dec, 2018: Director General of Mine Safety and other Coal India officials visit the site 5 days after the collapse.
20 Dec, 2018: Local Deputy Commissioner (IAS) writes to the state Additional Chief Secretary Revenue & Disaster Management, Government of Meghalaya, asking for 100 hp pumps. This happened 7 days after the collapse.
24 Dec, 2018: 11 days later, NDRF stops using the 25hp pumps as they have no effect.
27 Dec, 2018: Coal India receives the request for pumps, informs Coal India branches in Dhanbad (Jharkhand) & Asansol (WB) about the request.
28 Dec, 2018: Coal India team visits the site to assess “ground reality” 15 days later.
28 Dec, 2018: 11.30 am – Odisha State Fire Department team arrives in Guwahati.
At 5.45 pm – Meghalaya government finally arranges transport for the Odisha team.
29 Dec, 2018: 2 am – Odisha team arrives at their accommodation, 25 kms from site and 220 kms from Guwahati.
29 Dec, 2018: Indian Navy divers arrive on site 16 days after the collapse.
16 Jan, 2019: First body spotted.
21 Jan, 2019: Meghalaya State & Central Government update the Supreme Court.
24 Jan, 2019: First body taken out in pieces, after falling apart during repeated attempts to pull it out of the mine.
26 Jan, 2019: Second body spotted.
29 Jan, 2019: Indian Army joins the rescue effort almost 6 weeks after the collapse.
A common report emanating from the Meghalaya incident is that the mining was illegal and the method used, ‘rat hole’ — a vertical shaft with horizontal offshoots, made the rescue efforts impossible and the influx of water from the river sealed the fate of the miners. A close look at India’s previous mining disasters will show that incompetency; lack of preparedness and absence of coordination is solely to be blamed.
It was December (again) in 1975 when an explosion in a mine in Dhanbad — ‘The Coal Capital of India’ – killed 380 miners and that too in a legal mine. In May of 1965, 268 miners died, again in Dhanbad, when an explosion led to a fire, killing the men trapped deep in the earth.
The timetable laid out here also highlights a classic trait of governance, even in 21st century India — red tape. The NDRF, clearly not having learned from previous mining disasters, arrived on scene at Ksan with 25hp water pumps, which they eventually had to abandon as its performance was futile. It took an astonishing 7 days for the IAS officer-in-charge of the district (Deputy Commissioner here but known as a District Magistrate in other states) to realise more powerful pumps were needed, so he does what the IAS are trained to do, generate paperwork — an application is sent to the Additional Chief Secretary. In an age of ‘Digital India’, Coal India – a PSU branch of the GoI — only received the request for assistance another 7 days later, almost as if the Deputy Commissioner decided to walk to Dhanbad and hand over the letter in person.
In another glaring example of incompetence, the Odisha State Fire Department team arrives in Guwahati, only to be left stranded with no transport for over 6 hours, making the team lose a critical day in the rescue timeline. The final act of incompetency was displayed earlier by the Indian Navy, whose diving team arrived 16 days after the incident. It is perhaps quite quick compared to the Indian Army, who turned up 46 days after the incident.
What is evident from this is that they are nothing new; the Indian public knows how efficient the wheels of governance are. What is surprising is that even after the formation of institutions such as the National Institute of Disaster Management, which is trying to rank itself among the IIT & IIM institutes, and yet cannot manage to establish basic inter-agency communication, training or coordination.
If India wants to learn how to handle mass casualty incidents, a good role model would be the American ‘Federal Emergency Management Authority’. The legal infrastructure establishing the agency, its powers, its ability to set aside red tape and do away with regular rank and file systems and processes are all worth learning from and that’s before we compare their equipment to ours. The inherent challenge with a solution like this where, in an emergency, one agency rules supreme and can take command of both private and public assets, is the devolution of power away from any hubs and into competent professionals, not politicians or their bureaucrats. As long as the general purpose IAS and retired Army generals hold positions that experts should occupy, man-made and natural disaster management will remain a shambles.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the organisation itself.