Why is there so much unrest among the non-tribal communities in the Bholaganj and Ichamati areas under the Syiemship of Sohra, Siirdarship of Mawlong and other neighboring villages in the limestone rich areas bordering Bangladesh?
Knowledgeable sources say that at the heart of the problem is the lack of livelihoods, particularly among the migrant population of these areas who were majorly dependent on the free economy of limestone mining and export, which has crashed.
Prior to 2015 anyone could make a deal with local tribal owners of land and start digging for limestone. Exporting to Bangladesh, which is just a few kilometers away by boat or land, was no big deal. It was a free economy with hardly any paperwork or constraints. Migrants from other parts of the region swarmed to the area as the going was good. Many smart importers from Bangladesh made deals with the local landowners and became miner, exporter and importer all rolled into one. Everyone cut a deal and stayed in business.
But this laissez faire situation came to a grinding halt when the High Court of Meghalaya banned limestone mining until the state government took measures to regulate it and the extraction of other minor minerals in the state. Over a 1,000 small wooden boatloads of limestone were ferried across to Bangladesh every day, while over 200 truckloads were transported per day just before this order.
The state government came out with the Meghalaya Minor Mineral Concession Rules 2016 under which mining could only be taken up after obtaining a mining lease from the government. The process entails seeking permission to submitting a mining plan, land documents, no-objection certificates, etc, which ends up costing lakhs of rupees, which individual miners could never be able to afford.
Many Khasi and Jaiñtia associations had filed petitions in the court seeking a reprieve from these rules to allow ‘traditional’ mining as done from ‘time immemorial by the Khasi tribe’. But the era of traditional mining has come to a close as the new regime of stringent application of laws and regulations is taking over the ‘tribal economy’.
In 2017 the then President of the Meghalaya Minerals Exporters’ Chamber of Commerce, the late Stodar Dkhar, had said that “more than 50,000 people who are directly or indirectly involved in the limestone mining activities have been badly affected after the Meghalaya government had stopped export of limestone to Bangladesh since September 18, 2016.” These people are from the Mawlong-Ichamati, Shella and Bholaganj areas of East Khasi Hills, he had said.
The impact was so adverse that people, both tribals and non-tribals dependent on limestone mining, were almost starving and children were no longer going to school that year. Add the trouble from demonetization at the end of 2016 to this and one had a full-blown crisis. Then came the campaign against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the demand for the Inner Line Permit (ILP) by pressure groups as the movement swept throughout the states of the North East. This made the non-tribal in these areas even more insecure.
The Covid-19 lockdown, which began in March, was the last straw as it managed to kill off whatever little hope there was beginning to grow out of the debris of the limestone crash.
Tellingly, a glance at the website of the Department of Mining and Geology lists 28 entities who have received mining leases and the majority are companies, including the cement firms based in Meghalaya and the Bangladesh-Chhatak-based company, the Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt Ltd, which mines and transports limestone from Meghalaya to its cement plant in the neighbouring country via a conveyor belt. The accusation against the state government is that the bureaucracy is creating more problems by creating hurdles for individual applicants to obtain mining leases.
Local sources said that, as of now, the limestone economy has crashed and has yet to recover. It may not recover at all for individuals as it was prior to 2016.
“While the local tribes have reconciled themselves to the situation and latched on to other trades or migrated to other parts of the state or elsewhere, the non-tribal migrants dependant on the old economy are not finding avenues for livelihood as they have no base in those villages,” said a local elder. He also pointed out that many outside forces and organizations are taking advantage of the unemployed people by fishing in troubled waters.
He also pointed out that the Bengalis and other non-tribals who were working in the agriculture sector in those areas are still working happily in the rice fields, the proceeds of which they share with the tribal owners of the land.