Thousands of young children work in the coal mines of Meghalaya state in northeast India. Deprived of a childhood and education, they work in dangerous, unstable and uncomfortable conditions with the constant threat of injury or death.
Children as young as 9 years-old work in “rat-hole” tunnels, digging for coal. Tunnels are extremely small with ceilings less than 1 meter high and narrow passages that only a small child can squeeze into. Provided with little more than a pickaxe and a head lamp, children crouch in these dark, damp, and tiny spaces for seven hours at a time breathing in air filled with sulfur.
“When I first went in the rat-hole, I was so scared. I thought the roof would fall on me. My knees were all scratched, but after two weeks I got used to it…Inside it is very unstable. The smell is awful. It is so dirty, and it is difficult to move. You breathe in the coal and the dust. People get sick like this. There is no water to drink and it is so muddy. It is not nice at all,” explained Karma, a 16 year-old miner.
The local child rights NGO, Impulse, estimates that approximately 70,000 children work mining for coal or loading coal trucks throughout India and Bangladesh. Most of these children are illegally trafficked in from nearby Nepal and Bangladesh. Human traffickers promise families large sums of money in exchange for their children’s commitment to work, but they often fail to explain the real dangers of the work they will engage in. Many children die while working in the mines, but their deaths are never reported or investigated.
Child miners work without safety equipment, healthcare or insurance to protect them. Tunnels are prone to collapse, with little more than a wooden beam holding up the low ceiling. They also commonly flood with little to no warning, endangering the lives of miners who can become trapped.
Under these dangerous conditions, injuries and deaths are common. Miners commonly become trapped within collapsed tunnels, get hit by falling rock, and even die. Yet, victims and their families rarely receive compensation for resulting medical expenses or death. In some cases the bodies of killed miners are never even recovered or returned to their families.
Ram Kumar Rai, a 40 year-old miner, stated “if we die, we die. They just bury us here. If we live, we suffer and we can’t earn. We rot here and die… When someone dies, they hide the body so no one will know. That way the owner does not pay compensation to the family. He doesn’t pay a single cent.”
India has passed national laws that both prohibit children under the age of 18 years-old from working in mines and set safety standards for mining. Yet the state government of Meghalaya has not implemented or enforced these laws for the mining industry which generates nearly 10% of the state’s gross domestic product.
Creative Commons Love: Ajay Panachickal on Flickr.com