NEW DELHI (AFP) - Indian navy divers on Sunday (Dec 30) launched an operation to find 15 men trapped for more than two weeks in a flooded "rat-hole" coal mine in remote north-east India, police said.
The workers have been cut off since Dec 13 when water from a nearby river poured into the 106m deep illegal mine in Meghalaya state.
There has been no sign of life, with the delayed rescue effort drawing public outrage, but the men's families are clinging to hopes that they may have found an air pocket.
"Fourteen navy divers arrived yesterday (Saturday) and surveyed the mine. They are trying to go inside now," police superintendent Sylvester Nongtnger told AFP.
"Rat hole" mining involves digging into the side of hills and then burrowing tunnels up to 1.5m high to reach a coal seam.
A federal environment court banned wildcat mining in the mineral-rich state in 2014 after local communities complained it was polluting water sources and putting the lives of miners at risk.
With mine owners and the state government challenging the ban at India's Supreme Court, the practice remains rampant.
Most of the miners are poor migrant labourers from neighbouring states.
In 2012, 15 miners were killed after they were trapped in another flooded rat-hole mine in Meghalaya. Their bodies were never recovered.
The latest incident has sparked a public outcry over the practice as well as poor rescue efforts.
The rescue had been hampered by a lack of power pumps and other equipment.
Last week the National Disaster Response Force requested the government send 10 heavy duty pumps to suck out water before divers could go in. The state-owned Coal India has sent some equipment and dozens of extra rescue workers arrived Friday.
"We won't give up till the last moment," vowed S.K. Singh, a senior officer with the NDRF.
Social media users have however drawn comparisons between India's response and the gripping 18-day-long rescue operation of 13 boys from a cave in Thailand in July. Some have called the operation to reach the miners "shameful".