Meghalaya has once again brought to surface the dark side of the coal business that has been in existence in the state for years.
Small-scale coal mining from pots, that are also notoriously known by the name “rat-hole”, with the use of local tools in the northeastern state was banned in 2014 by The National Green Tribunal, a government body that supervises environmental issues. However, the lucrative business of illegal mining continues unabated.
As part of the process, several narrow tunnels, usually 3-4 feet high, are dug on the hill slopes from where workers enter the tunnel in search of coal. The practice is dangerous as the tunnels are dark and there are chances of water seeping into the caves, which increases the chances of land sliding and collapsing of the entire tunnel.
National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), a statutory body under Ministry of Women and Child development, had in May 2012 commissioned a survey on the presence of child labour and existence of rat-holes in Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya.
A team of three members visited several areas in the state then and confirmed from the size of rat-holes that only children can work and adults cannot enter the pits.
Visiting the area with widespread coal mines, the team observed that in none of the mines any safety and welfare measures for workers were provided for. They found children working in hazardous conditions in coal depots and road construction.
NCPCR in its report recommended the government to undertake mapping of the vulnerable and sensitive areas where child labour is rampant. Ensure tracking and tracing of missing children; keep a vigil on placement agencies/ middlemen/ movement of person with a suspicious identity. Ensure medical and safety measures at the site of mines. Organize interaction with coal traders, mine owners, landowners, middlemen/ labour contractors to address the issues.
When contacted, a member of the committee R Nayak Recalled his Meghalaya visit in 2012. A former technical expert, Juvenile Justice at NCPCR, Nayak said: “Our team entered the well comprising several rat-holes and found that only flexible children can enter the rat-hole and it is not possible for well-built adults to enter.”
Nayak said the team had found several wells in the region and had spotted several multi-directional rat-holes 40-50 feet down the pits. He recalled how one of his team members started complaining of suffocation well before reaching the depth from where rat-holes can be spotted.
Most of the rat-holes are natural pits made by rainwater, Nayak said, adding children sometimes have to keep digging till 500 meters to reach the layer of coal.
The miners have to deal with multiple issues including lack of space for movement, lack of oxygen and the possibility of the sinking of the entire tunnel. Nayak said mine owners do not use modern technologies so that they can avoid coming under the radar of the mining department.