Cement companies in Meghalaya, which were foreseen as the engine of industrial development, turned out to be the biggest threat to the environment, and have destroyed some of the finest natural caves in the Jaintia hills.

Spelunkers (explorers of caves) from across the globe are now worried that if the cement companies continue with the ‘destructive’ limestone mining, Meghalaya may soon vanish from the world cave-exploration map.

Meghalaya is known across the globe for a large number of natural caves, especially in the Jaintia hills. The state is home to about 1,580 caves, and out of which, 980 caves have been fully or partially explored.

Brian Dermot Kharpran, founder-secretary of the Meghalaya Adventurers Association (MAA) told Northeast Now that four beautiful caves have been totally destroyed because of ‘destructive’ limestone mining by the cement companies.

Kharpran, who has been responsible for bringing to light the richness of Meghalaya’s caves, said the four caves — Krem Malo, Krem Umkseh, Krem Umkhang-Kharasniang and Krem Umlawan, are now totally destroyed.

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Krem Malo is situated on the outskirts of Thangskai village in East Jaintia hills district, and was one of the finest caves in the state.

The cave has an impressive vertical entrance shaft of 50 metre deep, and it gave access to a near horizontal network of passages with 20 metre high fossil passages.

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The fossil passage of 2,404 metre-long Krem Malo was decorated with beautiful formations of stalagmites, stalactites, columns, popcorn, cave-pearls and gypsum flowers.

“The main entrance shaft of the cave has now been totally filled up and choked by debris and waste from a cement plant,” Kharpran said, adding that the dumping of debris has led to the closure of the cave and caused irreparable damage to the cave fauna.

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Krem Umkseh had a beautiful entrance, and the local tribal people for centuries used the place as a washing place. It was situated behind a sawmill to the south of the Lumshnong Petrol Station.

“It was a splendid river cave, with lots of formations, and mostly low but wide, wet and crawling size bedding plane passages,” Kharpran, a recipient of the prestigious Tenzing Norgay National Award for Adventure, said.

Now, Krem Umkseh, which was 1,268 metre long, has been totally destroyed by limestone mining. “It is lost forever,” he said.

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Krem Umkhang-Kharasniang is situated to the south of Lumshnong village, and the immediate neighbourhood of the Umlawan series to the Kotsati-Umlawan cave system.

The cave entrance is beautifully decorated with myriad varieties of formations as the entrance to Krem Kharasniang.

“This amazing and stupendous entrance has been totally choked and covered underneath by the debris from a nearby limestone quarry,” Kharpran said.

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The large entrance gallery of the cave system leads to the ‘Porcupine Series’ with roomy and dry phreatic passages and highly polished floor and walls.

The Umkhang part of the cave is connected to the Kharasniang part via a lengthy and torturous crawl and squeeze name ‘The Royal Challenge’.

The cave, generally very well decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and botryoidal stal, has four entrances.

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Krem Umlawan is a part of the Krem Kotsati-Umlawan cave system which has 24 entrances, both horizontal and vertical. And the cave system is 21.53 km long.

“Debris from a limestone quarry completely covered the entrance of Krem Kharasniang has also dropped down the vertical shaft entrance to the lower reaches of KremUmlawan, thereby causing untold destruction to the part of the cave,” Kharpran said.

Krem Umlawan’s main passage runs underneath Krem Kharasniang and KremUmkseh.

The cave is fantastically decorated with layers of gypsum crystals, stalactites and stalagmites. Bunches of black gypsum crystals of world class importance were complemented by orange and grey limestone walls.

It is surprising as to why the Meghalaya government is turning a blind eye to the ‘destructive’ limestone mining by the cement companies in East Jaintia hills district.

Two cement companies — Topcem Cement and Star Cement have been accused of polluting the Lukha river-system in East Jaintia hills district.

Local tribals have been complaining for the last one decade that the colour of the water of Lukha turns ‘deep blue’ during winter months because of release of untreated toxic effluent from the cement factories.

In addition to destroying the majestic caves and polluting the river systems, Meghalaya cement companies have also been caught illegally extracting 17.64 lakh MT of limestone during the years 2013-14 to 2017-18.

And because of the illegal mining of limestone, Meghalaya government suffered a total revenue loss of more than Rs 300 crore.

The cement companies had carried out mining without mandatory environmental clearance, forest clearance, wildlife clearance and non-renewal of No Objection Certificates (NOCs) from Meghalaya Pollution Control Board.

As per official records, Meghalaya Cements Limited, which is producer of the brand Topcem Cement, ‘illegally’ extracted 4.34 lakh metric tonne of limestone continuously for five years.

It was found that Topcem Cement defaulted in contribution of Rs 3.12 crore (for locally procured limestone) to the Environmental Reclamation Fund.

It has also been reported that Topcem Cement has been selling cement at a higher price in Meghalaya.

While the price of a bag of Topcem Cement in Assam ranged between Rs 390 to Rs 420, the price is between Rs 440 to 450 in Meghalaya.

Apparently the cement companies ‘managed’ to continue with their illegal and ‘destructive’ operations in East Jaintia hills district of Meghalaya by paying ‘donations’ to the political parties.

Topcem Cement, Star Cement and Amrit Cement, the three cement producers in East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya, had contributed Rs 4.22 crore to the BJP in 2018-2019.

Topcem Cement had paid Rs 1.38 crores to the BJP’s election fund, while Star Cement paid Rs 2.68 crores, and Amrit Cement paid Rs 21 lakhs.

Raymond Kharmujai

Raymond Kharmujai is a Shillong based journalist. He can be reached at rrkharmujai@gmail.com