India has numerous laws to prevent children working in coal mines. Yet tens of thousands of them still do, in atrociously unsafe conditions.
Bouncing off the hard, wet walls and impossibly low ceiling of the tiny tunnel he mines, the sound of his labour reverberates 40 metres back to the pit.
A minute later, the pathetic light of his “safety lamp” — a household torch wrapped to his head with a bicycle inner tube — casts a feeble arc against the mine’s dark, before, finally, he emerges, in torn clothes, filthy and dripping wet, dragging a wooden cart loaded with coal.
Gayasuddin is 15. He has been mining this way since was 12.
Gilla Rai, 15, emerges from the rat-hole where he has been mining coal, in Meghalaya in north-east India.
“I don’t like this work, but I have to do it,” he says, breathing heavily with the effort. “If I don’t work, how can I put food in my stomach.”
Six days a week, for up to eight hours a day, Gayasuddin works crouched or lying flat in a tiny, claustrophobic tunnel, usually little more than half a metre high and up to 200 metres long. He works more than 30 metres underground, under a precarious, unknowably large tonnage of rock.
Smaller and more flexible than his older colleagues, his job is to load the coal someone else has mined with a pick into the rickety cart and drag it back into the mine shaft.
Two cartloads is a good day. It earns him about 500 rupees ($8.80), but leaves him exhausted.
Known as “rat-hole” mining, after the tiny burrows from which the ore is extracted, this is how coal is mined in Meghalaya, in India’s remote north-east.
It is Dickensian work, slow and labour-intensive, but, for India, profitable and necessary. This country craves power, and coal remains the cheapest, easiest source.
“I have never seen a school”: Gayasuddin, with a colleague, emerges from the rat-hole mine with a full cartload of coal.
In spite of numerous laws on India’s statute books banning children from working in mines, the industry employs tens of thousands of them in dark, difficult and dangerous conditions.
They work without safety gear or supervision, in makeshift, flood-prone mines. If they are injured or killed, they are quickly replaced.
Half a dozen hills away, and an hour’s walk from the nearest road, Gilla Rai is finishing his work day too.
Gilla, also 15, works alongside his father, and has younger brothers he expects to join him down the pit soon.
“It’s frightening,” he says. “This work is very dangerous. You worry about collapses, about dying. Sometimes people are trapped, and they can’t get out. You hear about accidents often.”
Deaths are reported almost weekly. Fifteen miners were left underground in July because there was no way to get to them. Local newspaper reports say occasionally new rat-holes extending horizontally from a shaft cross abandoned tunnels and miners discover human skeletons trapped inside.
Mine manager Ramesh Boro says those who go down the mines know the risks and go willingly.
“Everyone knows there are many accidents, soft rock falls. The rock falls suddenly and injures the miner or kills him. Sometimes the rock only traps the miner inside. But then he is dead anyway because we have no way to get him out.”
Gayasuddin and Gilla started mining at 12 and 13 respectively, ages, they say, that make them unexceptional here.
Another three 15-year-olds work alongside Gayasuddin in his mine, and younger boys are coming all the time to work. Neither he nor Gilla has anything beyond a basic education. Gilla stayed until third class.
“I have never seen school at all,” Gayasuddin says. “That’s the problem. I would like to do some better work, but I am not educated.”
In Ladrymbai, Amit Tama is the youngest worker Fairfax finds down a mine. He is only 12 but has been working for a year. Too small to swing an axe, and not yet strong enough to carry the basketloads of coal up and out of the mine, he helps load them.
There is no sentimentality. Miners are paid strictly according to what they can produce. Amit’s wage is about 200 rupees a day, a fraction of that earned by his colleagues and parents.
“The older men make more money than I do. I want to earn more.”
No current or planned laws will help children working down mines, says Hasina Kharbhih, founder of Impulse, which campaigns for child rights.
“India has laws. It needs to enforce them,” she says.
The children of Meghalaya’s coal mines are especially vulnerable. Many are from outside the state, and are here by themselves. They come from neighbouring Assam, or illegally over the border from Bangladesh and Nepal, sold — sometimes literally — on promises of good money, and less-than-truthful assurances about the nature of the work. They live in single-room shanties, with no electricity or running water, and little protection from the wind and rain. In winter it is near-freezing in these hills.
“I send my money back to my family,” says Gayasuddin, who is from a farming village in Assam. “There is work in my state, but the pay is low. Here, the work is much harder than I thought, but people can earn for their families.”
Intricate webs of extended family and community obligations bring boys to the mines. Some families are paid to allow their sons to go to work, in other cases, boys are sent to pay off a debt.
“This is trafficking, there is a purchase happening,” Ms Kharbhih says.
Forty per cent of 200 miners interviewed by Impulse were under 14. Half had been involved in some sort of exchange for money.
“Some were lured, some were just brought and they cannot go back,” Ms Kharbhih says. “Some, their families took money for them to go, others, their family was in debt, so they had to go to repay that money. People are being bought and sold. It is slavery in the modern context of a developing economy.”
Ms Kharbhih says boys sent to mine are being condemned to a life of low-paying and dangerous manual labour.
“Someone who has been working in a mine since 12 years old, they have lost all their basic education. By the time they get out of the mine, getting back into mainstream education is almost impossible.”
Gauging the extent of the problem is difficult. The work, by its very nature, is hidden from view, and its illegality means few are willing to admit to it. There is almost no government oversight or regulation.
Mines are privately owned and land rights afforded by the country’s constitution give people of ‘scheduled tribes’ irrevocable rights to use the land as they wish without interference. Across the sparsely-populated hills of Meghalaya, thousands of home-blasted mine shafts are sunk into the earth, dug deeper with each season, the rat-holes accessed by ever-extended, rickety bamboo ladders.
There could be as many as 30,000 children down mines in Meghalaya, Ms Kharbhih estimates. The state government says the number is fewer than 1000.
Late last year, the government released its mining policy, which did not ban rat-hole mining, but conceded: “The antiquated and outdated method of manual extraction, not only involves more time, labour and cost, but also constitute [sic] health hazard and risk to human life.”
The policy said the government “should make all out efforts . . . to prevent any type of child labour”, but critics in Meghalaya say a nexus of political and mining interests is cruelling any genuine push for change.
The issue is more complex than simply rescuing children from mines, or prosecuting owners and agents. India’s poorest families would be left poorer still without the money their children earn.
A life underground is punishing Gayasuddin’s body and limiting his mind, but he doesn’t want to be taken from the mine if there is nowhere else to go.
“My family relies on the money I make. I would like some better work, but this is all we have.”
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD