Meghalaya’s ancient caves crying for conservation

By Tomojit Bhattacharjee, IANS

New Delhi : In the past decade, at least 1,000 ancient caves have been discovered in Meghalaya. Yet mushrooming cement factories and indiscriminate coal mining are posing a great threat to these fragile and little known natural wonders in this northeastern state.

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These formations are of great scientific value and have great tourism potential as well. The state boasts of the 25.5 km-long ‘Krem Liat Prah-Um Lm-Labit’ cave, which is located in the Jaintia hills district and said to be the longest cave system in the country.

But the blasting of limestone to cater to the ever-increasing cement plants and the constant mining of coal have put the caves in danger.

“To feed these cement plants, limestone blasting is happening on a massive scale, thereby physically destroying the caves,” said Brian Kharpran Daly, a spelaeologist or an expert on caves from Meghalaya.

“Especially India’s second longest cave – Krem Kotsati-Umlawan in the Lumshnong area of Jaintia Hills is suffering due to a cement plant near it,” Daly, also the general secretary of the Meghalaya Adventurers Association (MAA), told IANS on telephone from Shillong.

The MAA, under the “Caving In The Abode Of The Clouds” programme, has been undertaking expeditions of the state’s caves since 1995. Spelaeologists from Britain, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria and Ireland participated in last year’s expedition.

So far about 1,100 caves have been discovered.

“The state government has been and still is totally indifferent to the fragility of these magnificent and ancient caves. In fact, licences are being issued indiscriminately to many cement companies through the single-window policy,” Daly alleged.

Multinational company La Farge is setting up a cement plant on the Nongkhlieh ridge in the state, which is a unique area in terms of cave density. In an area of approximately 30 sq km, 138 km of cave passage was mapped in this area.

Daly said from a scientific point of view, the caves are of great significance. “They are a scientific resource for every conceivable researcher, be he an archaeologist, a palaeontologist, a hydrologist or a climatologist,” he said.

Unscientific mining of coal is another hazard to the existence of these caves and their fragile eco-systems. Already all the rivers in Jaintia Hills are polluted and highly acidic due to mining, he said.

The caves also have great tourism potential. The Meghalaya government is trying to promote adventure tourism by conducting tours of some select caves in coordination with the MAA.

“Especially caves like the one at Mawsmai in the south of Cherrapunji are wonderful. After a narrow opening, it has wide amphitheatre-like halls,” said Suresh Bhatia, a Delhi-based tourist, who visited the caves last month.

“But there is inadequate infrastructure to support tourism in the caves,” he said.

Daly, a Tenzing Norgay adventure sports award winner, said the caves certainly have “great tourism potential. We are conducting package tours of some caves. But more government help is needed”.