The rat-hole miners of Shillong

Geetanjali Krishna

While in Shillong, we decided to get adventurous and explore some limestone caves for which Meghalaya is known. The Cherrapunjee caves really did bring Aladdin to mind — they glittered like treasure troves and were ridden with hidden pitfalls such as quicksand (our guide fell into some). But that’s not what this column is about. This column is about what we saw hiking up and down a mountain to get to the mouth of the caves. It was a steep climb uphill, and every now and again, we lost our foothold as we stepped on loose shale and dirty black stones. “What are they?” I asked. It turned out that I’d been skidding on coal. “Meghalaya has rich deposits of surface coal,” explained our Khasi guide Gregory, “we’ll probably see migrant labourers on these hills, collecting it to sell to larger traders.” Was coal mining not regulated by the government, I asked. “Not in the Khasi hills,” he said, “the land and all that lies beneath is owned by tribals, not the government.” I learnt that small-scale unlicensed coal mining is allowed as a customary right of the people.

Sure enough, as we blundered over the slippery hillside, we soon came across a miner family. The woman was cooking rice over a small fire and keeping an eye on a young child, who was scrabbling around under the rocks looking for coal. Near them was a clump of rocks sheltering a small hole. “This is one of the many holes on this hill that miners use,” said the guide. It looked large enough for a rabbit, but I just couldn’t imagine how a man could fit in. Slippers outside the hole told us that someone was definitely within. I tried peeping in, but the woman yelled at us in some sort of Bihari patois to go away. “Small-scale mining is in a bit of a grey zone,” said Gregory, “we should leave.”

As we walked away, I realised how isolated the family was. The only sign of life on the rocky mountainside was a large cement factory at its base. As we crossed another bend, the family came into view again. The miner had now emerged from his hole, covered in dirt. All he had by the way of burrowing tools was a pickaxe. “Actually, most of them prefer to use their hands rather than tools, for the crawl hole is so narrow that it has little room for any extra movement,” he said, “that is why the name, rat-hole mining.”

Returning from our limestone cave, we met the miner family again. They were eating a sparse midday meal. Next to them were two baskets of coal. “Is that all you’ve managed to collect?” I asked the woman. She grimaced and said, “This hole has little coal left. We’ll soon have to start digging elsewhere.” Rat-hole miners, she said, typically entered a one-metre hole and dug on and away to uncover layers of coal. When the hole ran dry, they dug elsewhere. Entire hillsides in Meghalaya are criss-crossed with such holes and tunnels, local ecology be damned. “What happens if the hole caves in?” I asked. “Tunnel collapses aren’t uncommon. But people like us are migrants, no one cares about us. Most accidents just go unreported…” she said. Yet, poor migrants like them had few other employment options, she said. “Most Khasi landowners are shifting away from agriculture to mining, as this is more lucrative,” she said.

As we left them, I commented on how unjust this system was. “It certainly is,” agreed Gregory, “but if you dig for coal, you will blacken your hands!”