Children toil in India's rathole coal mines for Dh13 a day

Thousands of children in India's north-east begin work in middle of the night, ready to dig pits, squat through narrow tunnels and cut coal shards for meagre pay

A teenage worker places a basket filled with coal on his head at a roadside coal depot in the Indian state of Meghalaya. Roberto Schmidt / AFP
Powered by automated translation

RYMBAI, INDIA // Sanjay Chhetri, 13, 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 north-east, Sanjay begins work in the middle of the night, ready to dig pits, squat through narrow tunnels and cut coal shards.

At 1.4 metres tall, the skinny teenager is the perfect fit for a job in the lucrative mining industry in Meghalaya state, whose crudely built rathole 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 torch strapped to his head.

Seven months into the job, he still walks gingerly, taking care not to miss a step and fall 50 metres.

Once he reaches the bottom, he squats as low as he can and slips into the 60cm-high rathole, 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 said.

Twelve hours later, he will have earned 200 rupees (Dh13.5) 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 said.

As he shivers in coal-stained jeans and flip-flops, 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 said.

The 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 said.

Baby-faced Surya Limu is among the most recent recruits to join Mr Subba's team in Rymbai village.

Surya, 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, Surya 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 asked.

Child labour is illegal in India, with several state laws making the employment of anyone under 18 in a hazardous industry a criminal 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 because of its special status as a state with a significant tribal population.

This means that in certain sectors, such as 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, about 70,000 children are 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," said Rosanna Lyngdoh, an Impulse activist.

After decades of unregulated mining, the state is due to enforce its first mining policy later this year.

The draft legislation instructs mine owners not to employ children, but it does allow rathole mining to continue.

"As long as they allow rathole mining, children will always be employed in these mines, because they are small enough to crawl inside," Ms Lyngdoh said.

Accidents and quiet burials are commonplace, with years of uncontrolled drilling making the ratholes unstable and liable to collapse at any moment.

According to Gopal Rai, who lives with seven other miners in a 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," Gopal 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."