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

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.

Read the rest in Tehelka issue dated July 03, 2010

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