Where is the Coal Child?

Photo: Tehelka Archives
Photo: Tehelka Archives

The road from Shillong to Jaintia Hills used to be an eyesore. Heaps of coal dumped on either side of the road was a common sight. Now, this is one area in the country where the green cover is fast returning.

Last April, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a carpet ban on coal mining in Meghalaya following a petition by civil society groups, including the Dimasa Students Union of Assam, which filed a petition complaining that acid from the coalmines was polluting the Kopili river in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district.

The ban has ensured that no more black diamond is extracted from the rat holes of Jaintia Hills, which used to be the mining hub of Meghalaya for a decade.

At the heart of the illegal mining discourse in Meghalaya was the rampant use of child labourers in the rat-hole mines. The NGT ban has ensured that thousands of children, who had either migrated with their families or had been trafficked, no longer have to risk their lives crawling into the pitch-dark rat-holes and digging out coal. However, their lives have only become more difficult.

While the NGT order clearly specifies that the state government has to collect royalty on the coal that had already been extracted, the state is yet to spell out how it would rehabilitate the thousands of children who had toiled for years in extremely hazardous conditions.

It was in 2010 that Tehelka took the lead among the national mainstream media to expose the nasty truth about child labour in Meghalaya’s coalmines. Tehelka’s cover story (Half-life of the coal child by Kunal Majumder, 3 July 2010) shook the national conscience.

At Jowai in Jaintia Hills, Tehelka was once again able to trace Pemba Tamang and his friends, fiddling with coal balls and talking about their hazardous days inside the rat-hole mines. The 18-year-old Nepali boy was one of the many child labourers whom Tehelka had earlier interviewed in its series of stories on the rat-hole mines.

Tamang was one of the lucky ones. After being rescued two years ago, he has been part of the rehabilitation programme facilitated by Shillong-based Impulse NGO Network.

“It was a risky business,” recalls Tamang. “Once, my head was badly injured. Life was on a razor’s edge, but what to do? We were in the mines to make a living. I had been working in the mines since I was eight, after moving to Jaintia Hills from my village in Assam. My father had died eight years ago, when I was only 10. I had to work for seven hours a day, earning about Rs. 3,000 (per month).”

Tamang was among the 1,200 child miners who were rescued and rehabilitated by the NGO. Most of those rescued were minors, who were either trafficked or came in to work as seasonal migrant workers.

Until two years ago, Tamang had to fix a torch to his head with a rubber band, slip on his red gumboots and pray for his safety before he stepped into the coalmine. Now, he has undergone vocational training and plans to return to his native village when the rest of his family gets their pending money from the mine owner.

“I have done an electrician’s course,” he says. “I plan to go back to my village and see how things shape up. It is an uncertain future for thousands of children; they are getting engaged in other work or migrating elsewhere.”

Apart from Tamang, brothers Bikash Adhikari, 12, and Bishal Adhikari, 10, who were trafficked from Nepal to work in the coalmines of Jaintia Hills, were also rescued.

“We could rescue only 1,200 child miners,” says Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of Impulse NGO Network. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. We have been at it for eight years and tried all means to force the government to act on this, but it was always in denial about the child miners. We have done a detailed study of 5,000 rat-hole mines in Jaintia Hills district and our estimate is that 70,000 children were engaged in mining. The ban has saved the lives of many children who come from poor families. But who will ensure that they are not trafficked elsewhere? For NGOs like us, it is difficult to support thousands of children. The onus is on the government.”

In an earlier interview to Tehelka, Labour Minister Ampareen Lyndoh had said that it would be a difficult task for the government. “A large percentage of the children are migrants,” he said. “The labour department may not be able to figure out every individual case.”

Meanwhile, the mine owners are busy counting their losses. Off record, some of them admit that they did rampantly employ children and shamelessly add that they did not bother to find out where they have gone now.

“Our money is also gone,” says a mine owner from Rymbai on the condition of anonymity. “The politicians got most of it and that’s why they were blind to the fact that we were engaging children (in the mines). We have no records of where they went. Some families are still there because some owners have not cleared their dues.”

In Meghalaya, it is an open secret that those in the corridors of power had interests in the rat-hole mining, which had only benefited a handful of coal barons.

At ground zero in Khleriat, which used to be a busy coal-mining hub, there is an eerie silence. Many livelihoods have been destroyed. The children who lost their jobs were not only working in the coal mines but also at roadside dhabas and as helpers in trucks ferrying coal.

“I was working at a dhaba that catered to truckers who used to ferry coal. Now the dhaba is gone,” says Suraj Mangar, 15, who was allegedly trafficked into Meghalaya from Nepal via the Siliguri corridor in north Bengal. “After the mining ban, someone came from Delhi looking for child workers and promised me a job. But nothing came of it. Now, I’m working at a tea stall.”

What Mangar says points to the fact that perhaps traffickers are on the prowl to get hold of the child labourers who had lost their jobs in the rat-hole mines.

“This is the situation that the Meghalaya government has to prevent,” says Kharbhih. “The civil society has raised an alarm, but it is for the government to act. The provisions are already there in the NGT order and the government can easily generate funds for the rehabilitation programme by imposing a strict royalty regime on the coal miners who have been allowed by the NGT to sell coal that had already been extracted.”

According to the NGT order, “Nearly 6.3 million tonnes of extracted coal valued at Rs. 3,078 crore is lying in Meghalaya. The royalty payable to the state in reference to the extracted coal would be approximately Rs. 400 crore. In light of the above, we hereby specifically permit the transport of coal in Meghalaya forthwith subject, however, to a strict regulatory regime on the payment of royalty as aforesaid in a scientific manner, ensuring that it does not cause any environmental pollution.”

It remains to be seen whether the government, which has been indifferent to the presence of child workers in the coalmines, would ensure their tracing and rehabilitation. For now, intervention by the NGT and civil society activists has saved thousands of children from untimely deaths and health hazards.

But will the poor and helpless children get an opportunity to lead a better life, just like their friend Pemba Tamang? One can only keep hoping.

‘It is the Meghalaya government’s job to rehabilitate the child miners’

A child rights activist for decades, Hasina Kharbhih is now more famous as India’s first Masterpreneur. An Ashoka Fellow, Kharbhih started the fight against illegal coal mining in Meghalaya about eight years ago. As the founder of Impulse NGO Network, she took up the issue of children being employed in the state’s rathole mines. Even as the NGT ban has stopped illegal coal mining in Meghalaya, Kharbhih tells Ratnadip Choudhury why there is a need for a robust rehabilitation initiative for these children or else they will get trafficked again.

Edited Excerpts from the interview •

You have been at the forefront of the fight against illegal coal mining in Meghalaya and the use of children as labourers in the mines. Now that a ban has been imposed on mining, how much has changed on the ground?
If I compare the scenes when I first started to intervene with respect to the children being used as miners, people would not even acknowledge that this was happening. Even within the civil society, people would get upset if you speak against rat-hole mining. From there, things have changed a lot. At least today there is no more threat to the environment by unregulated and unscientific mining. Children cannot be used any longer. If regulated mining is permitted, the government will get the revenue and it will not benefit only a few individuals. Thus the NGT order has not only helped with environmental concerns, it has taken care of a lot of other contentious issue associated with coal mining. If you talk about the children who were employed in these mines, the government needs to understand that there is no point denying it. If it intends to clean up the coal-mining sector in Meghalaya, it should first start with proper rehabilitation of the children who were working in those mines in a near-death environment for years together.

eng_27The issue of children working in the rat-hole mines got international media coverage but in Meghalaya the government and a section of civil society turned a blind eye. What was the reason for this apathy?
Yes, there was an overall apathy on this issue. The government, a section of the civil society and even a section of the media chose to remain non-committal. First of all, the children were not locals. Children from local communities were not working inside the mines. Some were working outside as helpers but not as miners inside the rat holes. So, the local community leaders were not bothered. Secondly, Meghalaya is a small state; it is a close-knit society and everyone knows each other. It was known that the high and mighty were involved, so no one wanted to pick a fight. Moreover, it was a huge money- minting game. But a majority of the people associated with the trade were migrants. In fact, it was ironical that a section of civil society pressure groups in Meghalaya were asking for an Inner Line Permit (ILP) regime to stop the illegal influx of migrants but they would not acknowledge the fact that the migration was taking place because of rampant coal mining.

How difficult was the fight against the illegal coal-mining lobby not only for you but the other activists as well given the fact that they were all powerful people?
The fight was difficult. It was lengthy and tested our patience. A lot of people took offence because they had a business interest in coal mining. We started working since we got to know that there was a large-scale trafficking of children from Nepal. When we started investigating and documenting, we found out that children were coming alone and also migrating with their families from North Bengal, Lower Assam, Nepal, Bihar and even Bangladesh. We started to map the mines and discovered cases of violation of child rights. With the limited resources that we had, we could map only 5,000 mines in the Jaintia Hills and estimated that 70,000 children were involved in the trade. That was alarming. More than 50,000 rat-hole mines were in operation all over Meghalaya at that time. We took up the issue with the government, but they would keep on moving the file from one table to another. Between 2008 and 2010, the NCPCR (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights) teams came calling many a time. But every time they came, the mine owners would get to know in advance and they would hide the children. It was getting increasing difficult for us to bring out the truth. The national and international media did a lot of ground stories, which created an impact. Approaching the court was the last option left and we sent a petition to the NGT on how the children were being used to plunder nature.

The use of child miners led to serious issues of migration and trafficking. How was the situation when you began your intervention?
An estimated 70,000 children were working in the mines. I’m sure the figure must have been more. Now that the ban has been imposed, where are they? The government should think along those lines. There should be a mechanism so that they are not trafficked to some other industry, to some other part of the country. We are an NGO with limited resources. We have been able to rescue and rehabilitate 1,200 children. In the cases that we handled, more than 60 percent of the children were trafficked. Middlemen were involved in bringing thousands of families — who were landless and homeless due to continued violence in different parts of the Northeast — to work in the mines. So, this was a human rights issue neglected by the state government.

Given the fact that the government chose to deny the practice of rathole mining, what can be the road ahead for the rehabilitation of child labourers?
There is a standing order from the Supreme Court that after a child labourer is rescued from a hazardous workplace, the state will have to pay him/her compensation. That needs to be pursued so that the children can use the money to rebuild their lives, get back to school or attend vocational training. The state should collect revenue from the mine owners and use it to create a corpus to start a proper rehabilitation programme for the children to ensure social justice.

What kind of civil society intervention would make sure that children are not pushed towards inhuman working conditions like those seen in the mines?
When we started working on anti-trafficking issues in the Northeast 15 years ago, people were indifferent. Over the years, the mindset of those in power and the common man has changed a lot. Now, there is a sense of seriousness. We have developed something called the Impulse model, which has been effective and has been internationally recognised. We are trying to replicate it across the Northeast through partner organisations. So far, we have rescued 4,605 children and they have never been trafficked again. So, there is always a ray of hope.



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