Inside Meghalaya’s black hole

Fifteen-year-old Altaf Hussain crouches effortlessly and heads into what looks like a black hole. Dragging a large wooden cart behind him, he disappears into the gaping darkness within seconds. After what seems like an endless wait but lasts just half an hour, he emerges from the hole with a cart laden with dark, glittering coal.
The head of this group of 30 is Abu Kalam Mia. The 27-year-old ‘sardar’, as he is called, is pleased—Hussain has got the best-quality coal, known as chocolate coal. A couple of more rounds and Hussain would complete his quota for the day which fetches him Rs 500.
Hussain, who comes from Hailakandi district in Assam, is one of the 70,000 children who work in coal mines across Meghalaya, sometimes up to 12 hours a day. Though there is mining in all seven districts of Meghalaya, it is concentrated in the Jaintia Hills district.
Hussain came to the coal-mining town of Ladrymbai in this district when he was barely 11 and has been working in rat-hole mines for the past four years. Every day, he makes the precarious journey down pits dug about 70 feet deep. The depth of pits here ranges between 50 and 200 feet.
The descent into the pit is always dangerous. Rickety, makeshift wooden ladders run along the wet stone walls for workers to climb in and out of the mines. With water perpetually sliding off the walls, the floor of the pit is always wet.
Each mine is full of labyrinthine rat holes—just one- to two-foot high. The mining technique resembles the scurrying of rats through narrow building passages, and thus the name—rat holes.
“Different people have different jobs. There are coal diggers, cart drawers and coal carriers. We work underground. The coal breakers, sievers and others work above the ground. We get paid more than they do because our job is so much more dangerous. We usually carry out eight cartloads of coal between the three of us every day to fill an entire crate. We get Rs 1,500 for every crate,” says Hussain. The children working above the mines, breaking and sorting coal, get paid between Rs 100 and Rs 300 a day.
Like the thousands of children who arrive in Meghalaya’s Jaintia hills every year to work in its burgeoning and unregulated coal mines, Hussain was brought to Ladrymbai along with his elder brother by someone they knew in their village. “My father died and we needed to support our mother and sisters, so we came here. At first, I was really scared to go into a rat hole but with time it got easier,’’ he grins before racing back into the blackness. Inside the tunnels, the darkness is broken only by the light of the slim torches tied to the miners’ heads. The miners work for five-six hours at a stretch after which they emerge into the daylight.
Ladrymbai, a dark town
As night falls, the miners return to their homes or camps in Ladrymbai. The mining town, 110 km from Shillong, seems to have jumped right out of the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. A sinister blackness hangs in the air, the grimy soot settling on the shoulders of the town’s broken-down buildings. On its street, meat shops jostle for space along with small stalls that sell electronic goods and pirated CDs.
On the main street lined with beer shops, Tata Sumos and Boleros packed with migrant workers and children roll on as the dust rises to meet the grey sky. Migrant coal miners, sometimes with their families, live in shanties built with plastic sheets and makeshift bamboo walls in settlements near the mines. Sometimes as many as 10 people share a shanty. Pools of water stand around these camps. The houses here have long outlived their lives, broken down and then hurriedly patched back. A factory rises from the town square, belching smoke from its tall chimney.
At night, underneath sordid yellow lights of dhabas and grimy resthouses, Ladrymbai’s nightlife comes alive. Rosanna Lyngdoh, director of Impulse Asia, a Shillong-based organisation that has been campaigning against rat-hole mining, says, “Along with mining have come alcoholism, prostitution and drug addiction, even among children. In the last three years, the Jaintia Hills district has had the highest juvenile crime rate in Meghalaya.”
“The youngest coal miner we have found till date was a five-year-old. Usually, they are between 12 and 18 years. There are one lakh such mines in the Jaintia Hills across Meghalaya. Many of the sardars employed in the coal mines are Nepalese, so they double as agents and whenever they go back to Nepal, they bring more children. Many young girls now make their living as commercial sex workers in these mining areas,” says Rosanna. The government denies that children work in the mines.
The cottage industry
Rat-hole mining is Meghalaya’s darkest secret. Hasina Kharbii, who runs Impulse Asia, says one of the reasons why this form of mining is rampant across the state is because of the private ownership of tribal land. “Protected by the 6th Schedule of the Constitution, which grants exclusive land rights to the indigenous tribes, the land in the hill districts is owned by individual tribal landlords. So each individual can drill a hole into the land, if there is any indication that there may be coal underneath, and start mining,’’ says Kharbii.
In the absence of big companies and a regulated industry, what this means is that coal mining in Meghalaya functions like a small cottage industry with very little capital investment. In 2009-10, 14 lakh tonnes of coal worth Rs 318.54 crore was exported from Meghalaya.
The industry employs a large number of children, many of whom are from the neighbouring states of Assam, West Bengal, Manipur and Nagaland. Children are brought from Nepal and Bangladesh too. According to a report on rat-hole mining by Impulse Asia, 77.6 per cent of the children were from Assam. Kharbii believes many of them might not be from Assam but trafficked from Bangladesh. “In our studies and research, we have found that 43.5 per cent of the children have been found to be 14 years and younger. Out of the 200 children whom we interviewed for the report, 80 per cent were boys ranging from five to17 years,’’ she says.
Meghalaya’s Deputy Chief Minister and Minister for Mining BM Lanong refutes these claims, calling them “lies on the part of NGOs with vested interests”. “There are no children working in these mines at all. What happens is that children of families who work in the mines play around the mines and this is misconstrued as children working in the mines,” he says.
Mohammad Hilaluddin, 37, from Hailakandi district in Assam, says crossing over from Bangladesh through Meghalaya’s open border is easy for migrants. He has been working in the mines in Ladrymbai for 15 years. He says, “There were a number of Bangladeshis, both adults and children, working in this camp before, but they have now left.’’
Ladrymbai’s dark mines often hold uncomfortable secrets. In 2009, local newspapers wrote of skeletons of children discovered from the mines that had been shut for a while. A manager of a mine claims there have been instances where mine owners have locked up children in abandoned pits as punishment for “misdemeanours’’.
Hilaluddin says there have number of instances of mines caving in, trapping the miners inside. “Just last month, a miner died in one of the neighbouring coal mines,’’ he says.
Lalchand Ali, 15, from Barpeta in Assam, works in the grounds of Jaintia Coal Enterprises in Jaintia Hills. The grounds are located along a 33-km stretch, where hills of coal are labouriously broken and sorted. Trucks from as far as Delhi, Mumbai and J&K collect coal and transport it back to their respective states. The coal here can sell for anywhere between Rs 2,500 and Rs 7,500 a tonne depending on the quality. These days, it’s lean season so Jaintia Coal Enterprises has sold just 400 tonnes a day. In winter, when mining is stepped up, they can sell between 2,000 and 2,500 tonnes a day.
Mining may be one of Meghalaya’s biggest industries but the state has not had a mining policy—until now. Last week, the state government tabled its first-ever mining policy, The Meghalaya Mineral Policy (2010), before the Cabinet and got its approval. The policy encourages FDI in coal mining and also looks at the introduction of ‘Mineral-related Tourism’. It states that alternative means of mining should be studied but allows rat-hole mining to continue for the time being.
Conrad Sangma, Leader of the Opposition in the Meghalaya Assembly, says he has been opposing rat-hole mining for years. “This is completely inhuman. While we should be looking ahead, something like this just takes us back. But the state government is simply not willing to address the issue,’’ he says.
Mining Minister Lanong says there is no question of rat-hole mining being discontinued in the near future. “This has been going on in Meghalaya for the past 70-80 years. There are two reasons why we can’t discontinue it in our new mining policy. The first is because of the topography of Meghalaya, where there are seams of coal that run through the earth. If mining were to be mechanised and there were open-cast mining, it would cause colossal environmental damage. The second is that there will be nothing less than a war between the stakeholders, that is the mine owners and the government, if it is discontinued.”
So, for now, there seems to be no way out of the rat holes for the miners of Meghalaya.
The Coal trail
* Meghalaya coal, popularly known as tertiary coal, can be found in all seven districts of the state. The ash content is much lower than the best quality coal found in the rest of the country and its calorific value exceeds some of the best-grade coal. But its sulphur content is very high, which makes it a highly polluting fuel
* The coal, mostly of sub-bituminous type, is primarily used for power generation, fertiliser industries, smokeless coke, cement industries, textile industries, paper industries, rubber industries, brick burning and pottery industries
* The total estimated inferred reserve of coal in Meghalaya is about 640 million tonnes, which would account for approximately 1.1 per cent of the total coal reserves in the country
* The mining sector contributes 8-10 per cent of the GDP in Meghalaya
* The average price of coal is approximately Rs 3,000 per tonne
* While most of the coal is sent to other parts of the country, a lot of the coal is exported to Bangladesh through border trade