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The dark secret of Meghalaya's coal mines

Jul 01, 2010

Unknown to the dangers of the coal mines in the Jaintia hills, children mostly minors from neighboring places came to the mossy, wet deep coal pits to earn a living. However there was lot more that they expected- snakes, falling rock and hostile pits.

Six months ago, Sundar Tamang, 16, ran away from his home in the Dorkha district of Nepal. A stranger from Meghalaya had come visiting and told him that the Jaintia hills were a beautiful place where he could earn a lot of money. So he packed his bag and ran. But nothing had prepared him for what lay ahead.

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The stranger had not told him that the money he dreamt of would lie at the bottom of steep, sheer holes — chutes — punctured 100-180 feet deep into the ground. Didn’t tell him that he would have to climb down precarious ladders, coiled like snakes, slimy with moss and rain, where a mere slip of foot would mean plunging to a certain death.

Didn’t tell him that at the end of these precarious ladders he would have to crawl like a mole into dark, horizontal, claustrophobic burrows, two feet high and often 1,500 feet long, to scratch coal out of hard stone with nothing but a pickaxe and a torch for company. Didn’t tell him that sudden rain, a tipped cart, a falling rock — just about anything could mean death in those hostile pits.

But even if he had been told, nothing could have prepared Sundar Tamang for the rat mines of Meghalaya because these mines beggar the average imagination. Barely a hundred kilometers from Shillong, the otherwise picturesque Jaintia Hills are pock-marked with sudden, unannounced holes, angry interruptions in the sloping green.

The Jaintia Hills have always been known for their illegal, unscientific mining, but shockingly, as the frenzy for coal is shooting up, these mines are increasingly being served by a workforce of children — mostly minors ranging from age 7 to 17.

NGOs estimate that a staggering 70,000 children from Nepal, Bangladesh, Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand are working in these private mines. There is no official survey but the government does not contradict the figures.

Instead, they admit a frustrating helplessness. Mine owners assert there are almost one lakh quarries in the region.

Arindam Som, Secretary, Mines, says he can neither confirm nor deny this, “Mining is a private enterprise so the government has no control over it.” Meghalaya Director General of Police, SB Kakati says, “We don’t even know how many labourers are working in these mines, leave alone how many child labourers.” This absence of regulation and information only adds to the horror of Meghalaya’s death chambers and the lives of the children working in them.

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On a normal day, Tamang would not have been found in his hut. He usually enters the rat holes at 5 am and comes out after 8-10 hours. But it’s been raining non-stop for a few days. The quarries have filled with water; the rat-holes are flooded as well. Tamang is depressed.

“The first few months were really tough,” he says. “I was scared to enter those dark pits.” His parents asked him to return but he didn’t have the money, so he continued working. After six months, he still hasn’t saved enough to go home.

Days spent alone in dark, low tunnels. Nights spent in more isolation, far away from family. Add to this the limbo of relentless rain and little money. And the hopelessness of Meghalaya’s rat mines seeps in. In three days spent together, Tamang does not smile even once.

"Did the ceiling collapse or did he drown?” “Was he a Bengali or a Nepalese?” “What did they do with his body?"

Even in this forsaken landscape, the weekly rations can cost up to Rs 1,000, says Khan. Plus some of them drink and smoke. Khan had come to Jaintia three years back. He started as a driver but soon found mining more rewarding. “You cannot earn more than Rs 4,000 as a driver here, and the locals don’t allow outsiders to drive. Mining can fetch us around Rs 8,000 to 10,000 a month.” Many try to send money home but Tamang has managed that only once; many others have never had enough to spare.

The rain refuses to let up. Most mines in the region are named according to their distance from Ladrymbai. At Seven Kilo Miles, informtion has started trickling in about the death of a child miner. In nearby camps, people have begun to whisper in clusters. “Did the ceiling collapse or did he drown?” “Was he a Bengali or a Nepalese?” “What did they do with his body?” Rumours fly in the absence of authentic information.

“There’s never a police investigation,” says Ram Rai, 27, from Kathmandu, Nepal, who has been working in these mines for the last six years.

At Soo Kilo, four kilometers from Ladrymbai, Purna Tamang, who has a contract for nine quarries, admits that many children have died in the rat holes. “There is no compensation to the family. In many cases they are not even informed. Sometimes if the sardars are good, they give the families Rs 10,000 to 50,000.”

The good sardars will not, of course, compensate for the health hazards that come with mining — typically, respiratory problems and damage to the nervous system.

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“Unfortunately, due to the illegal nature of these mines, the public health system has not been able to reach these areas,” says Dr AY Kynjing, state Director of Health Services. “There have also been reports of use of brown sugar and other injectible drugs from the area,” he adds.

Bindo Lanong, Deputy Chief Minister, who holds the Mines and Minerals portfolio, says the new mining policy will take care of many of the flaws. In a self-defeating move though, he adds, it will not include regulatory provisions for labour. “We already have a Union law that clearly mentions the age limit for labourers in mines,” says he.

But, as Saharia points out, the Union laws are quite arbitrary. The Mines Act, 1952, says anyone below 18 cannot be employed in mines, while the Labour Law fixes the permissible employment age at 14. A top state bureaucrat, on condition of anonymity, acknowledges that there is no political will to pass a law that will sufficiently regulate mining in the state. This is probably true.

The government seems to have no qualms about pocketing its part of the spoils. According to mine owners, around one lakh metric tonnes of coal, worth around Rs 50 crore, is extracted from the Jaintia mines every day. The government gets a royalty of Rs 290 per tonne; the mine owners sell it for Rs 4,200 per tonne. Most of this low-grade coal is transported to different parts of the country and to the Bangladesh border.

Child labourers

Most mine owners like Wonderful Shullai, deny the presence of Bangladeshis. This stand is echoed by Philip Pala, another owner and brother of Union Minister of State for Water Resources Vincent Pala. “My family, at least, doesn’t employ children. We are educated and we know the evils of child labour,” he says.

Tehelka visited several mines in this region and met children who said they had been working there for years: one from Jharkhand called Raj Borjo, 17, said he’d begun working there when he was 5.

"Despite the large-scale and cascading tragedy of these rat mines, there seems little official effort to stem it"

A supervisor, Ishwar Chandra Rai, announces, “We are going to extract 14-15 boxes of coal before lunch.” Among the 16 miners inside the labyrinth is 14-year-old Sunil Tamang, who goes to school but works in the mines over the weekend. His father is also a miner. Do rat holes scare him? “No. I have been working here for three years now,” he says.

Despite the large-scale and cascading tragedy of these rat mines, there seems little official effort to stem it. Tehelka could not meet Chief Minister Dr Mukul Sangma as he was away in Europe. A detailed questionnaire emailed to Labour Commissioner-cum-Secretary MN Nampui got us this reply:

“You know how the government process works. Your questionnaire has been put in the files.” The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and the Planning Commission, however, have requested the state government for a report on this matter. Given the way official India responds to most things though, this inquiry will probably lead to Zero — symbolic of the lives of children in Meghalaya’s rat mines.

To read the full story, please click here.

Source : Tehelka
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