As 15 children fall victim to Meghalaya’s rat-mines, questions raised by TEHELKA two years ago remain unanswered, says Kunal Majumder
HOW MANY more deaths will it take for the Meghalaya government to wake up to the reality of child-miners in the rat-hole mines of the state? On 9 July, 15 young lives were lost in the rat-holes in south Garo Hills. Trapped in the mines after rainwater flooded them, all hope of a rescue was lost. As this goes to press, authorities are still searching for bodies.
TEHELKA had first reported about the inhuman mining conditions inside the rat holes of Jaintia Hills in east Meghalaya (Half-life of the Coal Child, 3 July 2010) and how children from Nepal and Bangladesh extract coal from these mines. Unlike in the past, the deaths in the Rongsa Awe mines of Nangalbibra village were widely reported in the media. The presence of local miners among the dead meant more local outrage, something that has been absent in the past.
The government has filed an FIR against mine manager Gurdeep Singh but let go of the owner, Kundan A Sangma. With the state going to elections in 2013, politics continues to delay action even as the state government reluctantly acknowledged the presence of 220 child miners in Jaintia Hills in 2011. In May, a team from the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) rescued two minors from rat-hole mines in Ummulong and Phramer areas of Jaintia Hills. Two cases of labour law violations were lodged against the mine owners, one of whom was the local Congress MLA Nehlang Lyngdoh. “These two cases are just samples,” says NCPCR member Yogesh Dube. “We have instructed the state labour department to go after all the violators.”
The 3 July 2010 TEHELKA story had shown how children between the ages of 7 and 17 were being employed in huge numbers in the coal mines of Jaintia Hills. Reporters travelled to these rat-hole mines and chronicled their story. Young boys, most of them claiming to be over 14 — the Mining Act does not allow anyone below 18 to be employed — crawl like moles into dark burrows with nothing but a pickaxe and a torch. A sudden downpour, a tipped cart, a falling rock could mean an end to life.
Earlier, Impulse Network, an NGO led by child rights activist Hasina Kharbih, carried a year-long study recording interviews of 1,106 children working in the mines. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took suo moto cognisance and began investigating. After two years of denial by the state, on 30 May 2012 NHRC chairman and former Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan travelled with his team to Shillong. During a day-long camp there, the state government accepted the presence of child labour in the region. But the issue of private mining continuing in its current form remains unresolved.
“While we do not agree with the state government’s view on mining, at least they accept there is child labour in these mines,” says an NHRC member who was present at the camp. The NHRC had given eight weeks to the Meghalaya government to file an action taken report (ATR) in this regard.
Unfortunately, even before the state government could file its report on Jaintia Hills, 15 innocent lives were lost in the Garo Hills in another rathole mine. This time, in another part of Meghalaya.
“We will come up with an executive order that will give exhaustive instructions to mine owners on safety issues,” says Deputy Chief Minister Bindo Lanong, also in charge of mines. As for the action the state government is planning to take to stop child labour in mines, we will have to wait for it to file its response to the NHRC in August.