Villagers living downstream of Myntdu river along the India-Bangladesh border in Meghalaya's Jaintia Hills district have welcomed the National Green Tribunal order banning coal mining in the entire state.
These villagers, whose primary source of livelihood is fishing in the rivers, had to abandon their centuries-old practice 30 years ago when river water became too polluted to support life forms due to rampant unscientific rat-hole coal mining upstream of the river.
The National Green Tribunal on August 2, 2014 upheld its April 17, 2013 interim order banning coal mining in the state after observing that the right to life was far more significant than economic interest of a state or an individual.
"Article 21 of the Constitution of India gives prominence to the right to life than any other interest including economic interest of the State or the individuals," a bench headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar had said.
The Myntdu river and other rivers became too polluted for fish to survive because of the "mine run-off" and acid effluents flowing down from the rat-hole coal pits upstream, the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board had said in a report compiled after conducting extensive tests in 2008.
The board had conducted the tests in two rivers – Lukha and Lunar.
Soon after, the Delhi-based Central Laboratory of Central Pollution Control Board also endorsed the acidic nature of the river water which was unsuitable for life forms to survive and unfit for human consumption.
Fishing in the river had provided the villagers their primarily means of income, farming being an alternative source, from time immemorial.
The other villages downstream of coal mining areas - Borkhat, Natbor, Kwator, Dem Lakang, Pdengwah khynriam, Pasadwar, Lumpyngngad, Kamsing, Jalia Khala and Sangkhat – also shared the same situation.
When this journalist visited the villages to hear the reaction to the NGT order, everybody welcomed the verdict.
"Give us back our rivers in their pristine glory. We want a river where we can bathe and wash our linen, we want it to be filled with fish so that we may live peacefully," the headman of Kharkhana village, Pyrman Shylla, said.
Earlier, fish of every shape and size ranging from fingerlings to cat fish as big as a boat were caught everyday, Kip Amtra, a former headman, said.
The elders of the village said that it all started in the summer of 1984 when the brown water laced with poison killed thousands of fishes big and small along the whole stretch of the river and the village stank as tens of thousands of abandoned corpses were left to decay.
"Pollution of the water is proved by the colour of the water which in most of the rivers and streams in the mining area varies from brownish to reddish orange," a study by Sumarlin Swer and O P Singh of the Centre for Environmental Studies, North-Eastern Hill University here said.