SHILLONG, Jan 28: 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 an effort was undertaken to expose the nasty truth about child labour in Meghalaya’s coalmines.
At Jowai in Jaintia Hills, Pemba Tamang and his friends fiddle with lumps of coal and talk about their hazardous days inside the rat-hole mines. The 18-year-old Nepali boy was one of the many child labourers who were 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,” she says.
In an earlier interview, 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.