The children who work in India's rat-hole coal mine

Published Feb 21, 2013 08:00am

Indian coal miner, Surya Limu (inside hole), squats with other miners by a fire to keep warm hours before dawn, inside the face of a 50 meter deep shaft in Rymbai village in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. Unlike his more experienced colleagues, Limu moves slowly down the precarious mine steps, his delicate features straining with the effort. Child labour is officially illegal in India, with several state laws making the employment of anyone under 18 in a hazardous industry a non-bailable offence.  -Photo by: AFP
Indian coal miner, Surya Limu (inside hole), squats with other miners by a fire to keep warm hours before dawn, inside the face of a 50 meter deep shaft in Rymbai village in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. Unlike his more experienced colleagues, Limu moves slowly down the precarious mine steps.  -Photo by: AFP

RYMBAI: Thirteen-year-old Sanjay Chhetri has a recurring fear: that one day, the dark, dank mine where he works will cave in and bury him alive.

Like thousands of children in India's remote northeast, Chhetri begins work in the middle of the night, ready to dig pits, squat through narrow tunnels and cut coal shards.

At four feet six inches, the skinny teenager is the perfect fit for a job in the lucrative mining industry in Meghalaya state whose crudely-built rat-hole mines are too small for most adults to enter.

Each day Sanjay makes his way down a series of slippery ladders in the pitch-dark, carrying two pickaxes, with a tiny flashlight strapped to his head. Seven months into the job, he still walks gingerly, taking care not to miss a step and fall fifty metres (165 feet).

Once he reaches the bottom, he squats as low as he can and slips into the two-feet-high rat-hole, pulling an empty wagon behind him. That's where his nightmares begin.

“It's terrifying to imagine the roof falling on me when I am working,” he says. Twelve hours later, he will have earned 200 rupees ($4) for a day's work, more than his parents make as labourers in the state capital Shillong.

The eldest boy in a family of ten, Sanjay left school two years ago when his family could no longer pay the bills. “It's very difficult work, I struggle to pull that wagon once I have filled it with coal,” he tells AFP.

As he shivers in coal-stained jeans and flip-flops revealing wrinkled feet that look like they belong to a much older man, he says his parents constantly ask him to return home to work with them. But he isn't ready to leave the mines yet.

“I need to save money so I can return to school. I miss my friends and I still remember school. I still have my old dreams,” he says.

Mine manager Kumar Subba says children like Sanjay turn up in droves outside Meghalaya's coal mines, asking for work. “New kids are always showing up here. And they lie about their age, telling you they are 20 years old when you can see from their faces that they are much, much younger,” he tells AFP.

Baby-faced Surya Limu is among the most recent recruits to join Subba's team in Rymbai village. Limu, who claims he is 17, left his native Nepal for Meghalaya when his father died in a house fire, leaving behind a widow and two children.

Unlike his more experienced colleagues, Limu moves slowly down the precarious mine steps, his delicate features straining with the effort. “Of course I feel scared but what can I do? I need money, how else can I stay alive?” he tells AFP.

Child labour is officially illegal in India, with several state laws making the employment of anyone under 18 in a hazardous industry a non-bailable offence. Furthermore, India's 1952 Mines Act prohibits coal companies from hiring anyone under 18 to work inside a mine.

Meghalaya, however, has traditionally been exempt due to its special status as a northeastern state with a significant tribal population. This means that in certain sectors like mining, customary laws overrule national regulations. Any land owner can dig for coal in the state, and prevailing laws do not require them to put any safety measures in place.

According to the Shillong-based non-profit, Impulse NGO Network, some 70,000 children are currently employed in Meghalaya's mines, with several thousand more working at coal depots. “The mine owners find it cheaper to extract coal using these crude, unscientific methods and they find it cheaper to hire children. And the police take bribes to look the other way,” Rosanna Lyngdoh, an Impulse activist, told AFP.

After decades of unregulated mining, the state is due to enforce its first-ever mining policy later this year. The draft legislation instructs mine owners not to employ children, but it does allow rat-hole mining to continue.

“As long as they allow rat-hole mining, children will always be employed in these mines, because they are small enough to crawl inside,” Lyngdoh said.

Accidents and quiet burials are commonplace, with years of uncontrolled drilling making the rat-holes unstable and liable to collapse at any moment. According to Gopal Rai, who lives with seven other miners in an eight by ten feet tarpaulin-covered bamboo and metal shack, compensation is rarely, if ever, paid to injured children.

The 17-year-old spends his wages on clothes, mobile phone downloads and a fortnightly schedule of spiky “Korean-influenced” haircuts.

“Some days I feel all right, on other days it's a little difficult to breathe,” Rai said, a saffron and black scarf wrapped around his neck. He sees no reason to visit a doctor. “What's the point? Anyway, when I leave home for work I have no idea if I will come back alive.”


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Comments (8) (Closed)


Mazo
Feb 21, 2013 01:56pm
This is the problem in an incredibly diverse society - a wide latitude in the laws to accommodate disparate cultures. Take for example - Islamic civil law, which permits Muslim MEN the right to divorce their spouses with just a text message. Or the fact that Muslim men are allowed to practice polygamy! And Muslims make up less than 10% of India's population! A universal code of ethics and morality that finds deafening approval in place like Geneva and university lecture halls doesn't meet the politics of the real world. Many tribes in India's east are head-hunters, who collect scalps! Child labor and other highfaluting ideals are the least of the problems.
Indian
Feb 21, 2013 01:49pm
Good article.Poverty should be eliminated from India.
Khan
Feb 21, 2013 03:43pm
India shining
Akil Akhtar
Feb 21, 2013 10:21pm
No, can't be true ask any indian and he will tell you that India is shinning and everything is great.
sk
Feb 22, 2013 07:28pm
Let's face it India (like any third world country) has problem with child/slave labor where companies and individuals exploit these innocent souls and govt looks the other way. How Islamic civil laws come into this discussion. This is plain and simple exploitation of children whether it happens in India or any other country Learn to acknowledge that there are issues and by swallowing pride, hell will not break loose.
akoi
Feb 22, 2013 05:01am
Poor Nepalese boys doing odd job for the survival. But look at the bosses...they too are Nepali recruiting their own race. Else you wont find local khasi or Garo tribal children here. Biharis, Bangladeshis and Nepalese children are the one working tirelessly..so sad!
Islmail
Feb 21, 2013 06:31pm
indeed shameless. children are our future and this is how we are treating them.
Tamilselvan
Feb 21, 2013 06:39pm
Thanks for highlighting the plight of young children in the coal mines of India. Contractors with the support of local politicians and mafia do this and deprove youngsters of education etc. Poverty drives them to take risks at a very young age. One can see it in the ship breaking industry, carpet weaving industries etc. Though this is not unique to India it needs to be highlighted in the world press to raise the awareness among all