India's Supreme Court slams authorities for failure to pull out 15 workers trapped for 21 days in a flooded coal mine in remote Meghalaya state. Critics say lessons were not learnt from successful Thai cave operation.

Multiple teams from the National Disaster Response Force, Coal India and the Indian Navy have been trying to reach the miners but in vain.
Multiple teams from the National Disaster Response Force, Coal India and the Indian Navy have been trying to reach the miners but in vain. (Reuters)

India's Supreme Court on Thursday slammed authorities for their failure to rescue 15 workers trapped for 21 days in a flooded coal mine in the country's remote northeast.

The so-called "rat-hole" miners have been missing since December 13 when water gushed into the narrow pit from a nearby river in the state of Meghalaya.

The incident has been making headlines amid increasingly desperate efforts to save the group.

Multiple teams from the National Disaster Response Force, Coal India and the Indian Navy have been trying to reach the miners but in vain.

In response to a petition demanding that rescue efforts be stepped up, the top court said the government should ask the army to join rescue attempts, and asked why it had not yet done so.

"We're not satisfied with the rescue operations... We pray to God that all are alive. Whether they are alive or dead, they need to be taken out," the court said in its remarks.

Increasing water levels

Engineers with heavy-duty machines and divers were trying again Thursday to pump out water from the 115-metre deep (380 feet) tunnel.

A police spokesman said the water level had receded briefly on Wednesday but rose again, hampering the rescue work.

"To tackle this problem the fire service is using one more pump to boost the discharge," local police superintendent Sylvester Nongtnger said in a text message shared with reporters.

Most mines in mineral-rich Meghalaya are barely more than rudimentary holes –– some less than four feet in height –– dug into the sides of the Jaintia Hills.

A federal environment court banned rat-hole mining in 2014 after local communities complained it was polluting water sources and putting the lives of miners at risk.

But the practice continues with thousands of impoverished migrants risking their lives as rat-hole miners.

In 2012, some 15 miners were killed after getting trapped in another flooded mine in the state. Their bodies were never recovered.

Criticism 

The unsuccessful rescue bid has drawn criticism of a lack of urgency shown by government agencies, particularly given the remote location of the mine, a journey to which can take more than five hours from the nearest commercial airport in Guwahati.

“Would we have cared more if the miners had not been at the fringes of national consciousness in the northeast?” senior journalist Vir Sanghvi asked on Twitter.

"I have not given up hope, but our response to this crisis shames us as a nation."

Source: AFP