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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 26, Dated July 3, 2010
COVER STORY-Mining sorrows

Half-life of the Coal Child

Not many know that the dangerous and suffocating rat mines of Meghalaya are worked by 70,000 child miners. Following them into hellish pits, Kunal Majumder exposes the dark veins of an exploitative industry. Photographs by Shailendra Pandey

MEDIEVAL SET Mossy, wet, precarious — the 150 feet deep coal pits in the Jaintia Hills are death traps. These slippery ladders lead into rat holes too small for adults to work in
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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. 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.

Sudden rain, a tipped cart, a falling rock — just about anything could mean death in these hostile pits

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.

Ladrymbai is a bustling hamlet around 150 kilometers from Shillong. Here, trucks carry coal and taxis carry men and boys to and from border towns. When Tamang had run away, he had taken a taxi from Kakarvitta on the Nepal-Bengal border to Ladrymbai. It had cost him Rs 1,000. Now, he says, he has just Rs 50 in his pocket. For every cart of coal the boys manage to fill, they get Rs 800. But it takes a team to fill them and the money has to be shared. On a good day, the children in these mines can earn Rs 300 to 400. But this gets them nowhere. “It’s very expensive to live here,” says Akash Khan, Tamang’s friend. Khan, who’s from Silchar in Assam, claims he’s 21 but looks 17. They are sitting in a tiny shack made of bamboo and polythene, perched on a desolate hillock. This labour camp is shared by 25 miners, some as young as 15. The hut looks so fragile, a passing wind could fell it. Most of these makeshift camps are located in dense forests or just middle of nowhere — slashes of blue plastic in a sea of green — away from the eyes of the law. Free of parental restraint or any adult supervision, many of these child workers indulge in drugs, drinking and gambling. In the last 12 months, there have been increased cases of theft and burglary and even rape. The police has so far arrested 30 children aged seven to 14 years on charges of burglary. Three, aged 15 to 17, have been nabbed on rape charges. DGP Police Kakati says, “The situation in Jaintia is turning dangerous. The district has the highest juvenile crime rate in the state.”

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MINOR MINERS (Left) Kids load coal extracted from rat holes into iron boxes. These are hauled to the surface by cranes — more often, boys. (Above) Like many kids, Sunil Tamang, 14, spends his days crouched in a hole, digging for coal

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

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. He recalls how last April, while working at a quarry in nearby Jilia Che Ghulam, he was asked to remove the body of a 15-year-old who had drowned. “The malik just asked me to take out the body and bury it,” says he. The corpse was pulled out on the wooden cart used to haul coal. No police report was filed. The family was never informed. In life, as in death, these minor miners seem to be nobody’s children. There is no talk of child rights in this brutal environment.

Through the rain, news of a child’s death trickles in. ‘What did they do with his body?’ people ask

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. Tamang’s first few months in Jaintia were particulary bad as he frequently fell ill. “But there is no dispensary nearby,” he says. Actually, the nearest primary health centre is 6.7 kilometers away, but Tamang obviously had trouble accessing even that.

“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.

MUCH OF the spiralling horror of the rat mines — the extreme physical danger and psychological harm — stems from the fact that the state does not have any mining or labour law. This is almost unprecedented anywhere in the country. Priyam Saharia, a doctoral law student at the University of Kentucky, who is researching child labour in the North-East, says, “It is really surprising that the state government hasn’t legislated a separate law on labour like its neighbouring states.” A year ago, the government initiated a draft mining policy which is still under consultation. 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.

OPEN SESAME JSundar Tamag, 16, ran away from his home in Nepal in search of a better future. Now he’s trapped in a worse one. ‘The first few months were terrifying,’ he says

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.

There is no mining law in the state. The government is in no hurry to create one. It is part of the gravy train

Integral to the large profit margin in this brisk commerce are the little people. At Kongong coal depot, about 15 kilometers from Jowai, Jaintia’s district headquarters, heaps of coal are waiting to be loaded onto trucks. A small 10-year-old boy stoops low, collecting coal in a basket. He cuts a lonely, stark figure in the morning light. We ask him his name in Nepali, he doesn’t reply. We try Khasi, no answer. Then someone suggests the local language of Jaintia — Pnar. He replies, “My name is Zero.” It’s a cinematic moment of irony: he could have been summing up their lives in a word.

Noticing our presence, Zero’s mother spirits him away. A few meters away, 12- year-old Rupesh Kumar and 19-year-old Rajiv Kumar are breaking coal with a hammer. A half-filled wooden cart stands by. Rupesh seems annoyed when asked about his home. Rajiv is much more forthcoming. “We are from Bihar,” he replies. “He is young so he can’t do so much work,” he adds, as if apologising for his cousin’s low output. This breaking of coal is the end point of the tortuous mining process: the daily, life-threatening climb down the flimsy, serpentine ladders; the long hours in the bleak tunnels; the loading of coal into the trays; and then the laborious climb up. Sometimes, when the coal is loaded onto the carts, a rope pulls them up. Most often, a human chain of children carry the coal on their heads up the sheer, 150 feet wells — every fraught step a game of life and death.

Life is temporary in every way in the rat mines of Meghalaya. Around 10 kilometers from Ladrymbai is Nonjiri camp. It is late afternoon, the rain has stopped. The camp looks like a normal village: goats are grazing, dogs sniping, pigs lazing. A few elderly women gossip at the steps of their bamboo huts. Men chat at the local tea stall. Suddenly, loud music erupts: “My desi girl, girl… girl… girl… girl”. Whistles and catcalls follow. “The boys are enjoying the film,” says a man at the tea stall. “Today there is no work due to flooding so everyone has come to watch Dostana,” says Arjun Rai, the 17-year-old caretaker of the video hall. There are two more such halls in the same camp.

After the film, a group of teenagers and young men step out. One of the kids is 13-year-old Santosh from Assam. He doesn’t remember the name of his village. He came to Jaintia with his brother, who also works in the mines. He started by carrying coal from inside the quarries to the surface for Rs 200-300 per day. Now he pulls wooden carts inside the rat holes.

Initially shy, Santosh shows the TEHELKA team his quarry, a 10x10 feet hole that goes 150 feet down. “Work will begin again as soon as all the water is pumped out,” he says.

INTO THE ABYSS The rat holes look like bottomless pits when one is descending into them. As the coal carts go up, they eclipse the light. One slip and they can crash, causing certain death

A bunch of Nepalese teenagers in fancy football T-shirts (probably in World Cup mode) stop by. Youngest in the gang, Manoj Rai, 15, has just given his class 10 exam in Bhojpur district of Nepal. His cousin Vinod Rai, 17, has been working in the Jaintia Hills for seven months. “I have come here to work for just two months, then I will go back to study,” says Manoj. In a month, he can earn up to Rs 10,000- 15,000 — good money for his family of six. He came to know about the mines from his cousins but confesses he wasn’t aware of the hazards. “Once we enter the rat hole, we are not sure if we will come out,” he says. Vinod, on the other hand, seems to have accepted his fate. “I know this is dangerous,” he says. “But I have to support my family. There is no option.”

‘The situation in Jaintia is turning dangerous,’ says the DGP. ‘This area has the highest juvenile crime rate’

Just a few metres away, three young miners are bathing in water scooped out from the quarry. One of them — Mohammad Rehmanuddin — is clearly 11-12 years old. He is scared to talk. He says he is 18 and from Badarpur in Assam. Watching the exchange, his sardars — Arjun Datta and Mohammad Tajuddin — come rushing out.

“He is 16 years old. I brought him to work for me because he needed work. He belongs to a very poor family,” says Datta. Without being asked for an explanation, Datta adds defensively, “He doesn’t enter the rat holes. He merely cuts the walls of the quarries.” His partner Tajuddin claims there is no labour from Bangladesh in Jaintia. “We employ only Bengali workers from India. You see, Bengalis cut the quarries, Nepalese extract the coal from inside the rat holes and Biharis break and load the coal on the trucks,” he says.

Akash Khan, Tamang’s friend, rubbishes Tajuddin’s claim. “There is a huge number of Bangladeshi labourers in Jaintia Hills but they don’t want to be identified,” he says. “They are scared of being deported.” Unlike the Nepalese, Bangladeshis cannot work in India without proper work permits. Circumstantial evidence, however, clearly points to their presence. “We never had diseases like brain malaria in Jaintia before,” says Dr Kynjing. “This has certainly come from Bangladesh.” He also points out there has been an increase in sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS due to the presence of trucker drivers and young boys.

Most mine owners like Wonderful Shullai, however, 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. Pala’s Lok Sabha affidavit lists land in the Umsiang Lomare area as belonging to him. 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.

The Palas are among a dozen political families that own and operate mines in Meghalaya. This is allowed by the 6th Schedule of the Constitution. Hasina Kharbhih, team leader of Impulse NGO Network, which has been documenting child labour in the area for the last one year, agrees that there is a legal loophole. “There seems to be no law that governs mining in this state. The land owners are on a free run,” she says.

‘Here, even if we die, nobody will spend a single paisa. There is no safety gear, no insurance,’ says Raj, 17, a miner

TEN MINUTES drive from Kongong, brings us to the quarries of ‘Cement Area’, which derives its name from a huge cement factory in the vicinity. The sun is out and work is on at full pace. Anil Subha, 17, prepares his equipment under a tin shade. “The iron rods need to be heated, then sharpened. Otherwise it is difficult to dig out coal in the rat holes,” he explains. He offers to take us down the quarry for a tour. The iron box hanging from a crane that serves as a lift takes us down the 160 feet deep pit. Though the rain has stopped, water drips from the walls of the quarry. At the bottom, it’s pitch dark. Every five minutes or so, a wooden cart full of coal is pulled out of a burrow to be dumped at the bottom of the quarry, which is then loaded on the lift. The crane dumps the coal into the waiting truck.

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.

NO SUM GAME The rat holes look like bottomless pits when one is descending into them. As the coal carts go up, they eclipse the light. One slip and they can crash, causing certain death

The rain water has not been drained from a neighbouring quarry. Sanu Rai, 15, is struggling to start a water pump. He makes his way down the slippery ladder. Half-way, he jumps onto an iron pipe and fiddles with something there. Twenty minutes later, he emerges victorious: the pump starts working. “I was studying in class 5,” Sanu says about the time a contractor visited his village in Nepal with glowing tales about the Jaintia Hills. “I never thought I’d work in coal mines, risking my life,” he says. “But my parents were convinced by that man. Children have died in these mines but I work here to support my family.”

Sundays are holidays for nine-yearold Hamila Begum and her friends at Ladrymbai coal depot. On weekdays, she earns Rs 60 a day by breaking lumps of coal. “My brother does the same work,” she says. Her mother, standing nearby, proudly declares all her four children do this work. Why aren’t they at school? The standard excuse: poverty.

‘Here, even if we die, nobody will spend a single paisa. There is no safety gear, no insurance,’ says Raj, 17, a miner

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.

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Santosh, 13 Home: Assam Work: Coal cart puller Income: Rs 4,000-Rs 5,000 per month Saifu, 8 Home: Silchar on Indo-Bangla border Work: Overground helper Income: Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 per month Raju, 14 Home: Jharkhand Work: Coal loader Income: Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 per month Milan, 13Home: Nepal Work: Miner Income: Rs 7,000-Rs 8,000 per month


“It’s a kind of hide-and-seek”

Deputy CM Bindo Lanong does not feel the necessity of including labour provisions in the new mining policy


Jaintia Hills mines are completely obsolete and environmentally hazardous. Unscientific mining is causing a lot of danger to the environment and creating health hazard to the people. We are running against time. Since I took up the responsibility of mines a year back, we have been drafting a policy to take care of these important issues.

Shouldn’t there be a provision prohibiting child labour in the proposed mining policy?

It may not be necessary to include this in the policy, but we will consider. Why I say it is not necessary is because it is already there in the Central labour legislation, which does not allow children below 18, especially small boys, to work.

If employing children in mines is already illegal, why is the government not taking any steps to stop it?

It is for the Department of Labour to take action. They should impose the labour laws, knowing that these little kids are employed there. We will take up this matter.

I’m told that there are only seven mine inspectors in the state. How would they find out what is happening in far-flung areas?

This is a kind of hide-and-seek between the employers in the mine areas and the government. They would like to bring in people for cheap labour, but then as I said it is definitely illegal. Whoever is apprehended will be prosecuted as per the law. We have the state police, the border guards. We also have the BSF.

A large number of these mines seem to be owned by politicians, many in the state and Union government. Shouldn’t politicians be more responsible?

Definitely each and every mine owner must be concerned about this. As people, forget about leaders, even as common man, you should be concerned about your own area, your own life. That is up to the individual. But I am sitting here as the man who should see that the law is implemented. It seems there are quite a few illegal entrants, people from across the border. I am very sure politicians must be concerned about this.

There have been cases of child labour dying in the mines. As minister responsible for mines, aren’t you concerned?

The mines policy is being worked out. We understand that there are many, many things such as those pointed out by you, so the policy will cover each and every aspect.

WRITER’S EMAIL: [email protected]

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 26, Dated July 3, 2010

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