Under pressure from the National Human Rights Commission, the Jaintia Hills district authorities in Meghalaya have found 222 children working in unscientific coal mines.
The figure is way short of 70,000 child labourers a Meghalaya-based NGO had claimed were working in the hill state's coal mines often referred to as "rat holes" for unscientific and life-threatening methods employed to extract coal.
"In a district inhabited by barely 2 lakh people, it is impossible for 70,000 children to work in coal mines here," said a senior district official from headquarters Jowai.
Of the 222 children identified, 153 were found to belong to local communities. The rest had come with their parents from Assam, Bihar, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Rat-hole mining - workers go down at least 25m to extract coal with hands and primitive tools - is prevalent in Lad Sutnga, Bapung, Lad Rymbai and Khliehriat areas of Jaintia Hills. Similar technique is used in mines in Shallang, Langrin and Borsora areas of West Khasi Hills district and Nangalbibra of South Garo Hills district.
"We have convened a high-level meeting in the next few days to discuss ways of rehabilitating the child miners," said Arindam Som, Meghalaya's commissioner-secretary of mining and geology.
NHRC had on August 13 asked the Meghalaya government to work on a package to help children working under hazardous conditions in coal mines.
But a rehab plan for the children is easier said than done as locals engage in mining according to their traditional land tenure system wherein the people own the mines, not the government.
Owing to this "technical problem", Meghalaya's mines are classified as cottage or small-scale mines not covered under the Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act.