News Wrap


The method of driving narrow tunnels in mountains of Meghalaya for workers to move through and extract coal, was slammed as illegal, unscientific and harmful, and banned by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on 17 April 2014. Mid December 2018, fifteen workers in Meghalaya were trapped while mining coal using the "rate-hole technique, and are feared dead now. Vincent Pala, aged 50 years, told the Lok Sabha on 26 December 2018 that the narrow tunnels dug in mountains for workers to move through and extract coal should be "regularised". Pala is a prominent coal businessman in Meghalaya state. He is a native of East Jaintia Hills district, and an engineer by qualification. About a dozen politicians allegedly own coal mines themselves or have relatives as mine owners. They were named by a Citizens' Report prepared by civil society groups in Meghalaya, and submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2018. The report lists Pala, four ministers in the Conrad Sangma-led state government and seven MLAs, alleging these men or their relatives are coal mine owners. Many bureaucrats, technocrats and police officers are involved in mining business. Despite the ban, the primary reason for illegal mining in Meghalaya state is the alleged collusion between politicians, the state machinery, and mine owners. Many politicians, MLAs and ministers are coal miners, weigh bridge owners, operators and transporters. In an order of December 2018, the Supreme Court has allowed the Meghalaya state to continue extending transport permits up to 31 January 2019, for coal mined prior to April 2014. While most miners have stopped fresh mining after the NGT ban, there are few who are doing it. Much of the coal lying near the mine sites in the jungles were already extracted and being loaded into trucks, is the coal that was mined before the 2014 ban. Many people have no other option to earn their livelihood than to be in the coal business. Activists are physically attacked when they try to track the origin of a truck, laden with freshly mined coal, in East Jaintia Hills. There are numerous cases where rat-hole mining, during the rainy season has caused water flooding into the mining areas, resulting in deaths of many employees and workers.

The coal seam in Meghalaya is thin, its location is deep, and the over-burden on top is large, quite dissimilar to other parts of India. Coal mining gives the state government huge revenue, techniques similar to rat-hole mining is practised in parts of neighbouring Assam, but the NGT has not banned that yet. On 29 December 2018, Indian Navy drivers and surveyors from pump manufacturing companies and Coal India joined the rescue operation, to rescue 15 miners trapped inside a flooded rat-hole mine since 13 December 2018. The mine got flooded when water from the nearby Lyten river gushed into it. The mine is located on top of a hillock, fully covered with trees. There is no habitation nearby, and 80 to 90 illegal coal mines dot the area. The rat-hole coal mine is in remote Lumthari village, in East Jaintia Hills. Indian Navy drivers and pump manufacturing companies jointly moved 18 high powered pumps to drain water out of the 370 on-foot deep mine.

Bangladesh General Elections
An outcome that would be good news for India's ties with Dacca, Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League's alliance on 31 December 2018 swept to a landslide victory, securing a third straight term. At least twenty people were killed during voting in Bangladesh's first contested elections in a decade, on 30 December 2018. Dozens of candidates pulled out of the contest on voting day, claiming the ruling Awami League had rigged the vote, to secure a record third consecutive term for the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh's economy has grown at an impressive average of 6.3% every year, since she won a landslide in December 2008. However, inequality has widened, and labour surveys show 35% of people, aged between 20 and 29 are not working nor studying. The electorate consists of more than 100 million voters, a third of them younger than thirty. Opposition groups like the BNP and Jatiya Oikya Front claim that more than 8,200 people opposed to Hasina were arrested, and more than 12,000 injured, till election voting day.

The Awami League-led Grand Alliance won 288 seats, in the 300-member Bangladesh parliament, with the ruling alliance gaining nearly 82% of the total votes polled. The 71-year old Hasina said the Awami Leaque-led Grand Alliance win in the election is another victory for the people of Bangladesh in December, referring to Bangladesh's (then East Pakistan) victory over West Pakistan (Now Pakistan) in Bangladesh's independence war of December 1971. The chairperson of BNP, Khaleda Zia, aged 73 years, is in jail, and her son Tareq Zia in exile.

Bhutan Power Project
Bhutan is pressing India for fair tariff, for the Mangdechhu power project being built with Indian help, instead of asking New Delhi to enhance financial assistance for the mountain kingdom's 12th Five Year Plan. During discussions on the 12th Plan over a year, India had offered more financial help. Bhutan has held its ground in demanding a better rate for the power generated by the Mangdechhu, as it would generate better facilities for internal generation of funds, to finance the 12th Plan. The 720 mw Mangdechhu project is one of the ten hydro-electric projects planned under the Bhutan government's initiative to generate 10,000 mw hydropower with Indian support. Mangdechhu has started production of electricity since beginning March 2019. Surplus power is being exported from Mangdechhu project in Bhutan to India. No details on agreement over tariffs have been announced. India is concerned that Bhutan is steadily leaning towards China for industrial and trade ventures.

Ghost Towns in Latvia
Before Latvia joined the European Union, it had a population of 2.3 million. Now it is about 1.9 million, a fall roughly of 17%. No other European country has had a sharper decline. The heartaches of emptying out of eastern Europe has increasingly put a brake on the region's economy. Growth in Latvia has surpassed the western countries, but Latvian officials fret that labour shortages now, are putting off investors. Eastern countries mostly shun immigration, tightening the demographic squeeze. Without advocating limits on the right to work and travel in the EU, eastern European migration to Germany and Britain, with repeated work permits, has encouraged emigration from many eastern countries. The little town of Marciena in Latvia, is now an eerie ghost town, littered with abandoned concrete blocks of flats, hidden by conifer forests, and forgotten by the world. The town nursing home is in what was once Soviet Red Army barracks. After the Iron Curtain disappeared, the soldiers decamped, Latvia experienced a short-lived baby boom. The building was briefly turned into a kindergarten school. With changing times, Latvia's birth rate collapsed. An exodus of young workers to Britain and elsewhere, has since emptied Latvia of its young. The average monthly wage in Latvia is 670 Euros (£ 605), but in areas such as Marciena it is half that. Many people see no reason to stay. More than a dozen schools and kindergartens have been shut, and repurposed as nursing homes, to care for the elderly and infirm, while more than 100,000 of Latvian children and grand children live and work in the United Kingdom alone. Latvian officials are turning their efforts to luring emigrants home with the promise of an authentic Latvian lifestyle. With the cost of renting much lower in Latvia, many people want to bring up their families with Latvian culture and language. The number of Latvians arriving in the UK has dropped sharply since 2016. They seem to have gone elsewhere. There is little sign of a return influx to the Baltic state.

Vol. 51, No. 39, Mar 31 - Apr 6, 2019