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101 East

The Lost Boys

We explore the plight of thousands of children working in the dangerous coal mines of India’s Meghalaya state.

Last updated: 21 Feb 2014 07:40
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Karma,16, has worked as a miner for over a year in India's northeastern state of Meghalaya, crawling deep inside a 'rat-hole' tunnel to dig coal for seven hours a day.

"Inside it is very unstable. The smell is awful," he said sitting on a pile of coal. "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."

Child rights activists have reported that there are thousands of children like Karma working in Meghalaya's coal pits, because only those who are small in size are able fit in the claustrophobic tunnels. Many of them, like Karma, are believed to be from neighbouring Indian states, or from nearby Nepal and Bangladesh.

Hasina Kharbhih has been fighting the exploitation of these children for several years through her NGO Impulse. She said agents working for mine owners help traffic children to the coal-rich Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya.

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They promise impoverished parents high salaries in return for their children's work, but fail to mention the dangerous conditions they will be living in. The mines often flood without warning or cave in, trapping and killing workers. There is rarely any compensation for the victims.

"If we die, we die," said Ram Kumar Rai, 40, a Nepalese miner in Jaintia Hills.

"They just bury us here. If we live, we suffer and we can't earn. We rot here and die. People who have money, friends or family here, their body will be sent back to Nepal. And those who don’t have anyone, they will just throw their bodies here or there."

Rai was recently trapped in a tunnel after a massive rock fell on him. He had severe pain in his back and chest but received no compensation or money for medical treatment from the mine owner.

"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," he said.

There are several national laws in India that set labour and safety standards for mines, and ban children aged under 18 from working there. But the industry in Meghalaya is openly flouting these regulations because the state government has failed to implement these laws and punish offenders.

Karma has been labouring here since he was 14. His family of seven moved to Jaintia Hills a few years ago from Assam, desperately searching for work. His father had just died of tuberculosis after spending a lifetime in Meghalaya's mines.

"I would like to have the chance to study but then my brother would be the only one working and we cannot afford it. And if I try to do another job, the salary would be less. So do we eat or do I go to school?" Karma said.

Karma works most days, using a pick-axe to remove coal from the walls of the tunnels. "When I first went in the rat-hole, I was so scared," he said. "I thought the roof would fall on me. My knees were all scratched, but after two weeks I got used to it."

"There are boys who are nine to 10 years of age who are doing this work. Younger than that they cannot do it."

Despite several reports by the media and child advocates, Ampareen Lyngdoh, Meghalaya's labour minister, said she had yet to see hard evidence of young labourers.

"The mining owners were telling me that a child actually cannot pull out the coal from the mine," she said from her office in the state's capital, Shillong.

"You need to verify the ages of these so-called children. We are a community which is very small built. If you looked at my face you would not know how old I am. I can challenge you on that. So I might look sweet 16 but my age is something else.

"Every time we rescue these so-called children, they come to a medical officer and they manage to get a certificate which says they are above such and such age."

Despite her reservations, Lyngdoh said the government is drafting the state's first ever mining policy so they can register all mine owners and set standards for what they can and cannot do. Child labour is banned under these guidelines but 'rat-hole' mining is not, which is why children are employed in the first place.

Child rights activist Hasina Kharbhih is sceptical about the state government's sincerity in tackling child labour.

"The political will has not been there because half of the mines are also owned by a lot of political leaders. So definitely there is a vested interest of the political leaders to actually ensure that you slow down the whole process of whatever complaint is coming," she said.

"These people have no rights at all. A democratic country like India will not be developing and prospering through violation of rights. It is inhumane."

101 East travels to Meghalaya state to investigate the child labour industry in India's northeast.

What can India do to protect Meghalaya's #lostboys? Share your thoughts with us @AJ101East

Reporter's Blog

By Karishma Vyas

When you live in India for long enough, they become invisible. Twelve-year-old waiters at a road-side restaurant; a 15-year-old maid working in your neighbour's house; the 10-year-old boy who polishes shoes below your office.  Child labour is so widespread in India that it has become part of the wallpaper - a slight unpleasantness, like the unruly traffic or the heat.

UNICEF estimates there are 29 million children aged between five and 14 years who are working in India. That is the population of Malaysia. Yet, this has long ceased to shock those of us who live in the country. Of course, every now and then you think, 'Maybe I should say something'. But what would be the point? The families of these children need the money, and if they do not work, they would starve.

But in September 2013 this apathy no longer became an option for me. It was my first visit to the coal mines of Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya state, a region notorious for child labour in the worst imaginable conditions.

When I would look up at the sky, I would see a plane flying. I would feel like flying that plane. I used to always tell dad that I would be a pilot.

Karma, a child  miner in Meghalaya, India

I saw young boys crawling almost 250m into tiny, dark tunnels with nothing more than a little torch and gumboots to protect them. They stayed there for up to seven hours a day, manually digging coal that would earn the mine owners millions of dollars in untaxed revenue.

Every day these children wondered whether they would come out alive. They told me it was like playing Russian Roulette. If lady luck was on their side, they would survive, only to work another day. The tunnels often caved in or became flooded, and when that happened there was no chance of rescue.

It was the first time in many years that I felt outrage at the social injustices in India. What had these children done to deserve this? They were simply born to poor parents in a developing country, and for that they would spend their childhood inhaling toxic sulphuric air at the bottom of a coal mine instead of hassling their parents for the latest X-Box.

I met 16-year-old Karma in Jaintia Hills last December. He had a boyish grin and wore a cute Angry Birds beanie. He had dropped out of school a year earlier and had been working with his older brother in a 'rat hole' mine, earning $160 a week to support his large family.

There were so many things about Karma that were special - his eagerness to make you laugh, his loyalty to his family, his playfulness in the face of utter misery. He had no sense of indignation about the hardships he had to endure at such a young age.

Karma was baffled that a 'rich bunch of city folk' were so interested in him. But he agreed to help us, wearing a small GoPro camera on his head to film inside the deepest sections of the rat-hole mine where he worked - areas that were so small, we simply could not fit. The resulting footage of the dangerous work children like Karma do is heart-breaking.

When I interviewed Dipa Dixit, a lawyer and former member of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, she said that these young miners were nobody's children. Their parents had failed to protect them, and the state had abandoned them to their fate.

It was apparent that Karma was loved by his family, but that was all they had to give him. Without education or role models, he was condemned to the same cycle of poverty that plagued his father and grandfather. But Karma, like any child, had dreams of his own.

"When I would look up at the sky, I would see a plane flying," he said with a big smile. "I would feel like flying that plane. I used to always tell dad that I would be a pilot."

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