At 13, Badal Rai's days are filled with nightmares. Every day, early in the morning, he lowers himself into a one-metre-diameter hole in the ground and descends deep into the darkness below. With a torchlight fitted to one side of his head, the frail-framed boy crawls and starts digging with his pickaxe for coal - for Rs 200 a day. Welcome to the hellish world of Meghalaya's rat-hole mines, a place where the sun never rises.
Claustrophobia is a non-issue. Rai's fears are whether the deep burrow will cave in to bury him alive or whether he will be able to gasp for breath when water fills the narrow tunnel. In vain are his dreams of going back home with enough money to his parents in Nepal.
Tales of frequent accidents and deaths due to cave-ins of mine walls, sudden floods, falls in the pits and suffocation abound in these death holes, as do stories of quiet burials.
"In my five years here, I have seen and heard about countless accidents which occur with alarming regularity. Deaths are commonplace. There is no one to keep track. Everything is given a quiet burial here," says Purno Lama, a 34-year-old mine manager from Lad Rymbai, about 19 km away from Jowai, the district HQ of Jaintia Hills. "Children are preferred because the rat holes are small in size and it is not easy for large-sized adults to enter these tunnels," he says.
While the local media have often reported such accidents, it is difficult to quantify these accidents. The reason: coal mining is an unregulated activity in Meghalaya because of Sixth Schedule laws that permit private ownership. There are no registration laws for the labour employed nor are antecedents of the miners verified. With no documenting authority and lack of health facilities, almost all deaths and accidents go unreported.
"Getting the exact figure of deaths or accidents is impossible as none of the mines are government-registered. Whatever we know has come out through interactions with child miners and managers working in the coal pits," says Hasina Kharbhih, team leader of the Shillong-based Impulse NGO Network that has been doing seminal work on the child miners.
"During my last visit to a coal mine near 8 Kilo in Jaintia Hills on April 22, it was a child miner who passed on the information that an accident in his mine had killed a teenager just three days prior to my visit," she says.
Meghalaya is estimated to contain about 600 million tonnes of coal reserves. There are approximately 5,000 rat-mines, most of them located in the coal-rich Jaintia Hills in places like Lad Rymbai, Lad Sutnga, Bapung, Lakadong and Khliehriat.
The mines are of various shapes and sizes. Some are just a small and crude opening of one-metre diameter where Rai works, some have big openings of about 36 sq metres and are equipped with creaky bamboo ladders to the bottom of the shaft which can be about 500 feet deep with four rat-hole tunnels leading away at the bottom. It is to these narrow burrows that child miners are made to crawl to chip away at a coal seam.
These primitive rat holes pockmark much of Jaintia Hills' undulating landscape which must have been a sight to behold before the mad rush for coal raped the lush green region of its natural beauty.
"The inhuman conditions in the mines have to be seen to be believed. No medical facilities exist and safety equipment for the child miners is something never heard of. There is no water supply, no sanitation facilities," says Kharbhih.
Robbed of their childhood, the child miners are a submissive lot here because of threats, beatings and corporal punishments like being locked away in mine shafts in the darkness for long periods of time. In many cases, these children have been sold by their own relatives for as little as Rs 5,000.
Mine-owners deny the use of children in the mines. "No children are employed in the mines. They are like our own children, why will we push them to the mines," asks Wonderful Shullai, an owner of five working mines. But he keeps mum on being asked if he can vouch the same for all the mines.
Mine owners prefer immigrants to work in their mines because there is less accountability in case of accidents. "Mine owners are keen to employ them as accidents involving locals will invite enquiries and probing questions. In case of immigrants, even if they die in the mines there is no one to claim their bodies unless they have relatives around," says Lama.
Kharbhih's team has come out with a figure for these immigrant children. "Trafficked in by an intricate network of middlemen and recruiting agents who ensure the availability of cheap child labour for the mining mafia, the number of immigrant children is around 70,000 in entire Meghalaya, with about 40,000 from Bangladesh and 30,000 from Nepal. They are also ordered not to reveal their foreign identity. Anyone found violating the diktat is severely punished."
An Asian Human Rights Commission statement on the trafficking issue in Meghalaya states: "Everyday, thousands of truckloads of coal cross the Indian border to Bangladesh. The vehicles return with children, who are lured into the mining industry with the promise of better wages and living conditions. In most cases, the children are purchased by middlemen or abducted and sold by gangs in Nepal and Bangladesh to the mining mafia in Meghalaya."
"Besides digging for coal, the other popular business activity in the areas in and around the mining belts is the brewing of the local liquor or gambling," Kharbhih says.
Sexual abuse is rampant with many young boys and girls being forced to satisfy the lust of mine owners, elder miners, work supervisors and others. "Many children are also trafficked from the mining areas to other places for further sexual exploitation," she says.
In Jaintia Hills' coalmining belt, the air is thick with coal soot. Mounds of coal lie dumped beside the road to be picked up by the trucks to be transported to Bangladesh.
The Meghalaya Pollution Control Board has already reported an increase in air pollution in this coal belt. The average SPM (suspended particulate matter) count is 200 microgramme per cubic metre. Complaints of asthma and other respiratory tract ailments are very common.
The crude mining methods adopted as well as abandoning the mines after exploitation without adhering to basic mine closure techniques has impacted the environment enormously.
Moreover, the coal here is very rich in sulphur. As this region falls in the heavy rainfall zone, the runoff water is very acidic. The pH values of both surface and groundwater are in the range of 3 to 3.7, indicating that the runoff from the mines is eventually seeping into water bodies leading to an acute scarcity of potable water.
Extensive coalmining has also turned huge swathes into degraded land impacting the conditions for plants and animals. Forest area has declined significantly.
The ownership of the mines is also among the state's best-kept open secrets. "The mine owners are rich and very powerful. Whatever they seek they get," says Lama. The nexus includes politicians, businessmen and local strongmen. With coal being found so close to the surface in the Jaintia Hills, this form of mining-albeit primitive-is very cost-effective.
The AHRC statement sums it up aptly: "Several of the mine owners in the region have influence over the state's politicians. Some of them are even seated in the state legislative assembly. Their clout in the corridors of power is evidenced by the lack of intervention to prevent the illegal practice."