Foul Smell, Wait For Bigger Pumps: Meghalaya Miners' Rescue Nears Week 3

Foul Smell, Wait For Bigger Pumps: Meghalaya Miners' Rescue Nears Week 3

GUWAHATI/NEW DELHI: An Indian heavy equipment firm that sent powerful pumps to Thailand to save 12 boys trapped in a cave in July has offered help in the search for 15 people trapped in a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya for two weeks. The Meghalaya government has said it is speeding up rescue efforts after divers at the site reported they detected foul smell in the cave, raising concerns it could be from decomposed bodies.

"We are deeply concerned about the trapped miners in Meghalaya and are ready to help in whichever way possible. We are in touch with the officials of the Govt. of Meghalaya to offer our assistance in this regard. We hope all miners are rescued safely," pump-maker Kirloskar Brothers Ltd said in a statement.

Two low-capacity pumps used to draw water from the illegal mine in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills could not extract enough water for safe rescue operations, as water from a nearby river and another abandoned mine kept flooding the rat-hole mine that collapsed on December 13.

The small pumps had to be shut down as they were ineffective, the National Disaster Response Force or NDRF said.

A team of state-run Coal India Ltd, the world's largest coal miner, is also reaching the northeast state today after getting a request from the Meghalaya government, people with direct knowledge of the matter said. Coal India is sending high-power pumps from its mines in West Bengal's Asansol and Jharkhand's Dhanbad, the people said. These special pumps are not available even in Coal India's mine in Upper Assam, nearer to Meghalaya.

NDRF officials at the site said they are not certain whether the foul smell is of decomposed bodies as it could be from stagnant water, which has not been pumped out for three days. "Our divers reported foul smell in the mine. We cannot say it's from decomposed bodies because we don't know what is beneath 70 feet water. For the past three days there has been no pumping, so the foul smell could be from any source. No conclusion can be drawn," NDRF Assistant Commandant Santosh Kumar Singh told NDTV on phone.

The NDRF divers are waiting for the water level in the mine to fall from 70 feet to 40 feet, the level at which their divers can operate. "It is one of the most challenging operations in the history of the NDRF. Our divers are not trained for this kind of a situation," said Mr Sastri, who is leading the 1st Battalion of the NDRF for the rescue operation at East Jaintia Hills.

The crisis has taken a political turn with the main opposition Congress heavily criticising Chief Minister Conrad Sangma for what it claims is his "sloppy attitude" of handling the crisis. Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's attention.

"It's not the time to play politics. There is no question of calling off the operation. The operation is going to go to a different level now. The home ministry is in touch and helping us. We will continue trying and give more efforts," Mr Sangma told NDTV.

It took a week for the district commissioner at East Jaintia Hills to send a letter to the Sangma government for acquiring powerful pumps, sources said. Nearly another week went by before Coal India got word for help, they said.

Mining was banned in mineral-rich Meghalaya in 2014 after people said it was polluting water bodies. But the practice continues with locals illegally extracting coal using dangerous "rat-hole" mines, which means digging into the side of hills and then burrowing horizontal tunnels to reach a coal seam.