Who could have thought that the banned practice of rat hole mining would come to the rescue of the labourers 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.

Let’s take a look at the practice, which was banned in 2014.

Who are rat hole miners?

Rat hole mining is largely prevalent in Meghalaya, particularly 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 generally constructed using primitive equipment. Such practices frequently result in accidents leading to loss of life in some cases. For instance, six rat hole miners fell to their death in a coal mine in Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya.

There are some instances of rat hole mining in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, but experts said that coal seams in major coal bearing states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are thicker compared to Meghalaya, thereby leading to fewer incidents.

It is called rat hole as the pit which is dug is large enough for one person to pass through and extract coal from the seams.

What are their 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 on Tuesday to create the evacuation passage.

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

Where are these miners typically from?

Typically, rat hole mining is prevalent in Meghalaya. Even after being banned, the practice still continues illegally. For instance, in 2018, around 15 rat hole miners died inside a coal mine in the East Jaintia Hills district of the North eastern state.

Why is rat hole mining banned in India?

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned rat hole mining in 2014 as it causes environmental degradation and is a threat to the life of miners. The Tribunal termed it as unscientific.