Chirang, Assam: Salibur Rahman (60) is a worried man. His second son, Monirul Islam (19), has been trapped inside an illegal coal mine in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills since December 13 last year, along with 14 others.
In Bhangnamari, a sleepy village located about 170 km from state capital Dispur, almost every household has a story to tell regarding the coal mines of Meghalaya, but not as sad as Rahman's maybe. Or Abhijan Khatun's (28), or Abdul Mian's (60), for that matter. Like Rahman's son, Khatun's husband, Amir Hussain (30), and Abdul Mian's son, Mohd Shair Islam (33), have also been trapped inside the illegal rat-hole coal mine in East Jaintia Hills.
For the past one month, these families have been passing sleepless nights unaware of the fate of their near and dear ones.
Incidentally, Salibur Rahman himself was a regular at the coal mines of Meghalaya, untill 2014, when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) put a ban on unscientific rat-hole mining rampant in the state. But by then, Rahman had already parted with 25 years of his adult life putting himself at risk almost every single day at those 'killer mines'. As per a rough estimate, like Rahman, over 2,000 residents of the village had worked in those veritable death traps in some capacity or the other till then.
Poverty vs big money
Bhangnamari is like any other village of Assam. But dig deeper, and you will realise that villagers here have been living in abject poverty for a long time now.
“There is no scope of livelihood in this village. A daily-wage labourer in the district gets anywhere between Rs 150 and Rs 200," said Salibur Rahman.
Enter Meghalaya, and the illegal coal mines open up a new world of possibilities for these hapless villagers. "In Meghalaya, a coal mine labourer can earn anywhere from Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000 per day. It makes a huge difference to us," said Rahman.
All this despite knowing well that the illegal mines pose a threat to their lives. "Youths from the village go to work in coal mines in Meghalaya. However, the number is decreasing after the ban was imposed on extraction of coal from these mines in Meghalaya in 2014,” said the sexagenarian.
“Everyone is poor. They don’t have any other option to earn their livelihood. They must go out. Otherwise, they simply can’t survive,” he added.
Livelihood or death-trap?
Recalling his stint at the coal mines, Rahman said that during those times, labourers used to get a maximum of Rs 500 as daily wage. "Life in coal mines is really tough. Miners used to work without wearing any safety gear in place. There were no helmets, nothing. Only a cloth was used to cover our head,” he added.
There were no torchlights either, Rahman elaborated. Apparently, candles were the only source of light inside these mines during the 1980s. "We used to carry two candles inside the mines. When both of them burn out, we were forced to come out,” he said.
Like Rahman, Md Nur Hussain Sheikh (48) has also worked in the coal mines of Meghalaya for 13 long years. He, however, asked: “You can’t blame the youths alone for working there. Rather, action should be taken against the government. Everybody knows that illegal coal mining is rampant in the state. Then, where is the administration? Where are the human rights organisations?"
"Contractors always mislead and force our villagers to go and work at the mines," alleged Sheikh, who used to earn as much as Rs 60,000 in three months during the time he worked there till 2012.
However, some of the villagers who left the coal mines looking for 'safer' options weren't luck either. Fasiul Haque (35), worked at the coal mines in Meghalaya for two years, from 2010 to 2012, before deciding to call it a day.
"I moved to Delhi to work in a factory. However, because of the working conditions there, I am suffering from TB now. Like me, there are many people in the village who are suffering from the disease. It's a death trap for us either way."
Meanwhile, Muktakin Rahman, working president, All Bodoland Minority Students' Union (ABMSU), Bijni district committee, has urged the Meghalaya government to close the coal mines as soon as possible.
“Despite the ban, extraction of coal mines is still happening. That is why poor people from here are going there as daily-wage labourers,” Rahman said.