Children brought from Nepal and Bangladesh form part of the workforce in unscientific, ecology-threatening coal mines of Meghalaya, a study by a Shillong-based NGO revealed on Thursday.
The study was conducted across 10 coal mines of Jaintia Hills district in August last year. Impulse, the NGO, had collaborated with the global Aide et Action in interviewing 200 labourers aged below 18 years and documenting their experience.
Meghalaya sits on 640 million tons of subterranean coal, which is 1.1% of India's total reserves. The estimated reserve in Jaintia Hills is 40 million tons. The high-sulphur, sub-bituminous coal here is used primarily for power generation and as a source fuel in cement plants.
Mining activities in Jaintia Hills are small-scale ventures controlled by individuals who own the land. The coal is extracted by primitive surface mining method called 'rat-hole' mining that entails clearing ground vegetation and digging pits ranging from 5-100 sq m to reach the coal seams. Makeshift bamboo ladders take miners down into the pits to chip away through two-feet-high tunnels where children are considered the right size to work.
Impulse estimated that 5,000 privately-owned coal mines in Jaintia Hills employed some 70,000 child miners. The Meghalaya government refuted this figure, claiming a couple of years ago that the mines had 222 minor workers.
Other human rights organizations later said most of the child miners were being purchased or abducted and sold by gangs in Nepal and Bangladesh to Meghalaya's mining mafia. "The children have to work for free, as their work is considered as repayment of the debt they owe, which is nothing more than the price at which they are bought ($50-75)," the Asian Human Rights Commission said in its report.
Wage, however, wasn't much of a problem for the child miners, the Impulse report revealed. Overwork, drug abuse and alcoholism, health complications and prostitution were.
"The study is aimed at probing the trafficking of children under 18 years from Bangladesh and Nepal and from different parts of the country to work in the coal mines," the report said. It relates the experiences of 16-year-olds Kumarbhai and Chandra Kumar Rai from Kotang and Bhujpur in Nepal to drive home a point.
"He says that there is the danger of the roof of the mines collapsing. He even knows of four people who have died inside the mines, three inside the pits and one who fell from the bamboo scaffolding. No safety equipment is provided to them in the mines," the study quotes Kumarbhai.
The study poverty is the primary reason that drives families in Nepal and Bangladesh to send their children to work in the mines. "The fact that both the families and the children were unaware of the kind of work they would be involved in indicates that there was deception at play in luring them to work in the coal mines," it says, recommending more extensive cross-border analysis of the process of recruitment of child miners.