Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma has been lobbying New Delhi to lift a ban on dangerous, small-scale coal mining operations in his state, without disclosing that his wife owns several mines there, according to documents.
So-called "rat-hole" mining practised in Meghalaya state killed thousands of workers, including children, before the ban was imposed in April last year. At its peak the state produced coal worth $4 billion a year, or about a tenth of India's total production, nearly all from this form of small-scale mining.
In half a dozen letters to the central government, Sangma's administration has asked for help to revoke the ban imposed on rat-hole mining in the state by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), India's environment court.
Sangma argues that the industry forms a large part of the impoverished state's income and the prohibition violates tribal law. He also plans to propose an alternative plan to regulate mining and address the court’s environmental concerns.
In the letters, he does not say that his lawmaker wife, Dikkanchi D. Shira, owns six mines in the state. However, Sangma has said his family's interest in the mines was publicly known.
A senior central government official with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed that Sangma had not talked about his family's ownership of the mines during discussions with New Delhi.
In an interview, Sangma denied any conflict of interest.
He said he had declared his family's interest in the mines to the election commission during state elections in 2013, as required under the country's polling laws. He had told the president of his political party about the mines as well.
"I was fortunate to get married to a rich wife, who inherited the mines," Sangma said.
He said his wife's mines were in "running condition", but they stopped extracting coal after he first became chief minister of the state in 2010. Sangma has held several ministerial positions since 1998.
There is no law on conflict of interest in India for ministers.
An expert said Sangma's actions violate the government’s code of conduct that calls for ministers and their immediate families to sever ties with any business that depends "on licenses, permits, quotas, leases, etc., received or to be received from the government concerned."
The code is not legally binding and carries no penalties for violations. "If your wife owns a certain mine, and you as the chief minister are writing letters, then it's a case of the office of the chief minister being used in support of a private business," said Ashutosh Kumar Mishra, executive director of Transparency International in India.
Sangma said his push did not violate the code. "We know our responsibilities," he said, but declined to elaborate.
Private coal mining in Meghalaya, estimated to have 576 million tonnes or 0.2 percent of the country's total reserves, started in 1894. The practice became illegal in the 1970s, when India nationalised coal mines and gave state-run Coal India (COAL.NS), the world's top coal miner, a monopoly.
Still, private miners continued to operate there and the federal government did not interfere, given the state's remote location and the low quality of its coal.
Nearly all mines in Meghalaya use the rat-hole mining method. Workers, often children, go down hundreds of feet on bamboo ladders and dig out coal from narrow, horizontal seams. There are frequent accidents. It also pollutes water bodies and kills fish.
Impulse Social Enterprises, a non-profit that filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal that led to the ban, said 10,000 to 15,000 people were believed to have died in rat holes between 2007 and 2014 in Meghalaya.
P.B.O. Warjri, Meghalaya's top bureaucrat, acknowledged workers had died in mining accidents. He did not say what steps the government had taken.
Despite the NGT’s ban, some mines continue to operate.
A visit in September to Sutnga village in the state’s main mining area showed cranes lifting coal out from a rat hole, while men filled two trucks for transport.
Sangma told Reuters he will act against anybody found violating the court order.