The Northeast of India is currently one of those regions that international magazines suggest, you should visit before you die. The Lonely PlanetIndiatravel guide gives a rather fetching description of the region: “Thrown across the farthest reaches of India, obscured from the greater world by ageless forests and formidable mountain ranges, the Northeast states are one of Asia’s last great natural and anthropological sanctuaries.”
Sharing borders with Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh, these remote frontiers are a region of rugged beauty, and a collision zone of tribal cultures, climates, landscapes and peoples. “It even impresses upon the traveller to reconsider, if raw adventure is not his or her cup of tea”. This is, of course, well complemented by the flurry of Bollywood celebrities, appointed as Brand Ambassadors of several north-eastern states – Priyanka Chopra for Assam, John Abraham for Arunachal Pradesh and AR Rahman for Sikkim. With sprouting home-stays and towering five-star hotels pinning on the north eastern map, one would feel the country would finally sit up and notice. But national media attention is reserved only for a select few instances, while the region suffers chronic, socio-economic maladies underneath that exotic façade. Coal mining and its fatal repercussions, etc., for instance.
Last December, Rahul Gandhi’s tweet taking a jibe at the Prime Minister for posing for cameras while miners were trapped in Meghalaya, beckoned much social media traffic. The bandwagon-jumping Indian media tagged along and debated about the negligence of the Central government, while casually politicizing the waning lives of the trapped miners. Then, it moved on to more eyeball-grabbing stories. Barring a few news channels like CNN-IBN and NDTV, who had in the past covered the issue, not as much as International Media, like France 25, France 2, France 5, ABC, SBS, BBC, Al Jazeera,Los Angeles Times,New York Times, Le Monde France and many more on human interest stories way back from 2007 to 2013 for many years, which gave more than a quick glance at the issue, national television hardly bats an eyelid when lives are anonymously lost in the Northeast. That is the hard truth.
The truth is also that this is nothing new for the region. For Meghalaya.
Even after the Indian constitution expressly mentions child labour as a prohibited act in Article 24, it has been a constant phenomenon. Children are even trafficked for labour from neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh for mining work.
Adulated with synonyms like Scotland of the East or Rock Capital of India, Meghalaya is rich in natural resources and shares borders with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. But hidden in its beautiful hills is a blood-money enterprise that has filled up the coffers of many. Jaintia Hills is one of Meghalaya’s 11 districts which has been plagued with such an enterprise – rat-hole mining. Fora population of nearly three lakh, with approximately 49% under the poverty line, coal mining is an industry that yields promising dividends. Since the Supreme Court ban on timber in 1981, coal mining has not only grown with a production increase of 36% in a span of six years (1997-2003), but has also accounted for 8-10% of the state’s GDP during that time. The darker reality is that over the decades, rat-hole mining has also claimed innumerable lives.
Rat-hole mining began in colonial India as sistema del rato (or ‘system of the time’), which engages a type of mining that digs holes in the ground, as small as rats would, so that only the crouching bodies of little children can fit in. This practice gained favour in the north-eastern region of India, especially in Meghalaya and has been active since. Children as young as five, are found working in these mines, mostly because they offer cheap labour and get more ready permissions from their BPL (below poverty line) families. Even after the Indian constitution expressly mentions child labour as a prohibited act in Article 24, it has been a constant phenomenon. Children are even trafficked for labour from neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh for mining work.
Shillong-based Impulse NGO Network (INGON) accounts approximately one lakh child miners in the region, with precarious mining hazards, challenging or claiming lives each day in their research reports published between 2007 to 2009 based on Census Reports.
A miner takes fatal risks, right from the extraction to the delivery of the coal. Each mine has wooden steps running down the wall from the entrance to the bottom of the shaft, which become slippery/rotten and prone to injury or death, due to high/frequent rainfall. Apart from poor lighting, inadequate safety equipment, insufficient ventilation and flooding tunnels, there is always a risk of mines collapsing, since these are handmade.
Furthermore, mine owners also engage in extrajudicial execution to control their labourers. Disobedience, desire to leave or simply disagreement about payment can be reason enough to leave miners (including children) inside closed rat-holes as punishment. Even the police don’t step forward to help them on complaint. Barring that, the labourers’ living conditions are inhumane and unsanitary enough to kill them. Lack of safe drinking water and proper sewage system leads to diseases, and without any welfare or assistance programmes, these situations lead invariably to death. Deaths or injuries by accidents never get reported, since mine owners do not record labourers’ addresses or family details. They do not provide compensation or medical support either.
India has legal obligations to eradicate child labour under International Labour Organization conventions and many others. The conditions in which the child miners work, not only violate Article 24 of the Constitution of India, but also Article 38 of United Nations Convention on the Rights o fChildren, Schedule 2 Part 4 Item 12 under Section 3 of Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, and Section 40 of Mines Act, 1952.
With such conditions becoming customary, it is disheartening to see Indian media hardly taking notice of it. If not from a humanitarian angle, the situation certainly demands attention from the legal angle. India has legal obligations to eradicate child labour under International Labour Organization conventions and many others. The conditions in which the child miners work, not only violate Article 24 of the Constitution of India, but also Article 38 of United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, Schedule 2 Part 4 Item 12 under Section 3 of Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, and Section 40 of Mines Act, 1952. Besides, India has not ratified the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182) and Minimum Age Convention 1973(No 138).
INGON’s attempts to thwart this menace, however did manage to gather global support. It sent a press release to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) for global advocacy on children, trafficked to the coal mines as Child Labour. With the help of Global Development Network (GDN), INGON transformed this research for media advocacy – which gathered massive national and international media attention– and managed to rescue about 1,200 children. However, new recruits replaced the rescued children and business went on. INGON then filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the National Green Tribunal, effecting the ban of rat hole mining in Meghalaya on April 17, 2014. But although the PIL managed to stall it for a few years, the issue hasn’t been completely resolved yet and rat-hole mining has been resumed, claiming 15 lives by the beginning of this year.
The media’s role in the current situation is no longer about throwing light on the matter but to make it viral. Unless it constantly exposes and reports on this veritable criminal racket, rat-hole mining will soon become sistema del rato of our generation and devour entire childhoods in a matter of time.
(Views expressed are the author of the article only)