We are on the way to Shalkho, a tourist destination in Alpuri tehsil in Shangla, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, when we come across Nazia Feroz, 9, carrying a bAundle of firewood on her head. She is walking with five other children from the mountainous Shalkho jungle in Dara Manaf Khel.
We meet them on a Sunday, their day off from school, but these children are working, bringing firewood from the mountainous jungle to sell at a local market to make ends meet.
Nazia’s father, Feroz Khan, has been bedridden for the last three years due to a pulmonary illness. Nazia and her two siblings are enrolled in the government primary school in Dara Manaf Khel but, after school, and over the weekend, they bring firewood to sell in the Kuz Alpuri bazaar. They also use the firewood as fuel to burn in their home.
“My father used to work for years as a coal miner in Hyderabad, Sindh, where he became ill and was diagnosed with black lungs,” says Nazia, adjusting her scarf after placing the bundle of firewood on the path.
Many children in impoverished Shangla district have to work to support their families, where all adult males have either moved out to other areas to work in coal mines or returned seriously ill
Every Sunday, they go to the Shalkho jungle with a group of her relatives, mostly school students, and bring firewood and sell each bundle for Rs 250. From their earnings, they buy food and other essentials on their way back home.
Nazia is a third grade student at the sole primary school for the 4,000 residents of village council Manaf Khel. A local school teacher claims that 90 percent of the men of the village work as coal miners in different provinces. The Shangla Coal Mine Workers Rights Association, however, estimates that figure as 70 percent. It claims, every year, around 50 men die and more are crippled or injured due to pulmonary diseases.
Coal miners face grave risks in this field of work. Aside from lung diseases caused by inhaling coal soot, debilitating injuries, such as to the spine, are common. And then there’s the constant risk of death on the job.
Nine labourers were killed and four injured in a explosion at a coal mine in December 2022 in Orakzai tribal region of Doli, a few hundred kilometres south of Shangla district. Two years earlier, three miners from Shangla were killed and 10 injured at an explosion in a coal mine in the Boya area of Orakzai. Mine accidents are reportedly common due to the build up of flammable gases.
Government officials regularly promise to look into coal miners’ issues, including reviewing proper working conditions at coal mines and whether, for example, they receive safety equipment while working. However, nothing substantial comes of their statements.
Because of the extreme poverty in Shangla district, the locals, particularly young men, prefer to work as coal miners, because they usually have links to some relatives already employed in the profession, however risky it is.
Salih Khan, the head teacher at the aforementioned government primary school, says that, as soon as winter vacations are announced, most middle, high and college students leave for coal mining work in other areas and remain there until school resumes.
Replying to a question regarding his students collecting firewood after school and on weekends, Khan says it is common, as these children grow up under great hardship. They do this work to be able to run their homes and buy school stationery, because most of their fathers are away working in coal mines.
Nazirullah is one of the children among the group we meet, carrying a bundle of heavy firewood; he looks at us curiously. Where are you from, he asks us in Pashto.
Nazirullah is in the first grade and his elder brother, Zaibullah, in the fourth. Both boys carry heavy bundles of firewood to their home and tell us they dream of becoming doctors and serving the poor villagers of their area.
Nazirullah, dressed in his blue school sweater and wearing a shawl on his head as a turban tells us about his father Gul Baz, who works as a coal miner somewhere in Punjab. They have no one else in the house to help them bring firewood they can use for cooking or heating their homes, he informs us.
Before Nazirullah can complete his sentence, however, his brother interrupts and says it is the season for collecting firewood and they have to collect as much as possible to store before snowfall, because they will not be able to walk in harsh weather.
“We get tired and fall ill carrying firewood and then food from the bazaars on our shoulders,” says Nazirullah, saying they have to walk for hours through harsh and narrow terrains. “But we can’t say anything to our mother, as we know we have to do this to make a living.”
Every child we meet has a similar story of hardship.
Shabirullah, a fifth grade student, tells Eos he is the only boy at home and has to deal with such challenges, as all the males in his family older than 15 years are away. He says that, after passing middle school or Matric, boys from the village leave for work because of poverty and a lack of work opportunities in Shangla.
The children’s head-teacher, Salih Khan, tells us the student body at the government school is 433 and, along with himself, there are seven teachers in total. The village has three police constables for the village council of 4,000 people; the rest of the adult men have moved out for work.
Dara Manaf Khel is a village council of the district headquarters, the Alpuri Union Council, but has no girls’ primary school. So the 157 girls of Dara Manaf Khel are also enrolled in the boys’ school.
Khan says 50 percent of his students work to collect firewood and other chores usually done by adults, adding that their young lives are filled with miseries and hardship. He admits the kids are weak in their studies because of the hardships they face, which makes it difficult for them to focus on their schoolwork, for example.
He adds that their mental wellbeing has also been affected by these challenges, especially if you compare them to students from cities, who get to focus on their studies during their weekends and holidays. Those students can also participate in extracurricular activities.
Meanwhile, these children, who want a better education, cannot avail of additional tuition even during their winter vacation, because they cannot afford it. Although many aspire to graduate, they do not go beyond middle school, as they have to begin working to support their fathers.
Abid Yar, the spokesperson of Shangla Coal Mine Workers Rights Association, tells Eos that every coal miner’s child faces these challenges, but the number of orphans is also very high in the district; they are more vulnerable and face tougher challenges.
Abid Yar says they have been demanding a ‘Working Folks Grammar School’ in Shangla, as set up in other districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the first government of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. But this has not happened yet. Neither have authorities initiated any scholarship programme for children of coal miners or even initiatives for their welfare, though the government makes massive revenue from coal, he says.
It seems the welfare and future of these poor children is as much a priority for governments as Shangla is removed from the corridors of power.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent
in Shangla. X: @umar_shangla
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 26th, 2023