‘Rat-hole’ mines in India turn death traps for migrant workers

Magurmari, Meghalaya – The only tangible mementoes that Shefali Begum, 18, and Nafisa Begum*, 16, have of their husbands are the ‘salwar kameez’ (common dress in South Asia) the two brothers had brought for them shortly before heading off to work in an illegal coal mine in northeastern India.

Now, the two girls fear they may never see their husbands again.

The brothers Omor Ali, 26, and Shirapat Ali, 25, left their village Magurmari in West Garo Hills of Meghalaya in the first week of December to work at a mine in Ksan on the other side of the state in East Jaintia Hills.

Days later, on December 13, Shefali and Nafisa were told their husbands were among the 15 men trapped in the illegal mine at Ksan when floodwater from a nearby river poured into it.

Twenty days later and despite a rescue operation involving scores of emergency workers and Indian Navy divers, there has been no news of the men, nor any sign of their bodies.

At least seven men from Magurmari are trapped in the “rat-hole” mine. For the impoverished village, these “rat-hole” mines have become death traps. The Ksan “rat-hole” mine – named because men dig through narrow crevices to extract coal – is nearly 113 metres deep.

Workers from India’s National Disaster Response Force have been trying to pump out the flood water, but to no avail, according to Santosh Kumar Singh, assistant commander at the rescue force.

On December 31, a Navy diver reached the bottom of the mine, but found only coal at the mouth of one lateral hole.

“Rat-hole” mining was banned in 2014 by India’s National Green Tribunal following a petition that said the acidic discharge from the coal mines was polluting the Kopili River downstream.

Mine owners in Meghalaya, which has an estimated 576 million metric tonnes of coal reserves, have challenged the ban in the Supreme Court. The Meghalaya government has also sought a way around the ban, claiming to be losing an annual revenue of Rs 700 crore because of it.

The Ksan incident, however, has brought to the fore how entrenched the practice remains in the hilly state. Most of those employed in “rat-hole” mines are men and teenagers from villages such as Magurmari.

With both her sons, Omor Ali and Shirapat Ali, trapped in the mine, Omela Bibi (left) says there is no man left in the household [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]

Death traps 

Most of the 400 families in Magurmari do not own any agricultural land, forcing the men to find work in coal mines, according to Altaf Hussein, uncle to the Ali brothers.

The pair would work at a mine for two-three months and return home for 10 days. According to Hussein, they were paid Rs 30,000 ($430) every month, more than three times the money they would make working as masons in Magurmari.

Omela Bibi, the mother to Omor and Shirapat, was quiet, and her sunken eyes were fixed to the ground. “I would never let them go for such work had I known what gruelling work they undertake,” the 48-year-old said. 

The older Ali brother is the father to a seven year-old-daughter and two sons, aged four and two. 

His wife Shefali was dealt a double blow on the day the men got trapped – her 18-year-old brother Raziul Islam was also among the 15 trapped miners.

Islam, a bright student who only graduated from high school last year, went to work in the mines in order to buy an autorickshaw. His father, Sohor Ali, is despondent.

“I could not afford the autorickshaw. I told him we would manage expenses somehow. I touched his feet and begged him, but he just wouldn’t listen,” said Ali, who works as a day labourer on nearby farms. 

A second family in Magurmari also had two family members trapped in the Ksan mine. Mizanur Sheikh, 32, and his brother-in-law, Abdul Mozid, went to the mines to pay off their debts.

Sheikh used to work at the mines, but quit to sell vegetables in the local market, a venture that did not go too well. He took a series of loans, first for the business, and later for medical expenses after he contracted malaria. Today, he has a debt of Rs 113,000 ($1,625).

Mozid, who drove a small van until four months ago, borrowed money from various people to build a new house.

“Both Mozid and Mizanur decided that the only way out of debt was to work in the mine because it pays better,” said 17-year-old Sameer Azad*, Mizanur’s cousin.

“We told him not to go, but do kids listen to parents?” said Mohammad Ali, Mozid’s father. His other three sons do daily wage jobs, but Mizanur was the highest earning member of the family. 

“The lenders have been coming now, but we cannot blame them as they are poor too,” Mohammad Ali said.

Bodiot Zaman shows a copy of the identity card of his trapped son Abdul Kalam Sheikh [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]

‘We would crawl up to 30 feet inside’

The physical dangers of working in the “rat-hole” mine take a backseat before the relatively better wages from working at the mine.

Abdul Karim worked in such a mine until seven years ago, when a large rock fell on his spine and confined him to a wheelchair.

“We would crawl up to 30 feet (about nine metres) inside in a crevice that’s just about two feet high, and slide on our backs to chip out the coal with a pickaxe,” said the 28-year-old.

But the accident did not deter his elder brother, 32-year-old Abdul Kalam Sheikh, from working in “rat-hole” mines six years ago.

“He pondered for long, especially after my accident, but he decided that the wages were worth it,” Karim told Al Jazeera.

With Karim immobile, Kalam was the sole breadwinner in the family. He had educated all four of his younger sisters. One of them finished her bachelor’s degree this year – a rarity in a village where most girls are married off before they reach the marriage age of 18.

Kalam has a son who will soon turn one; the couple are expecting their second child next month. He had gone to Ksan few days after Omor and Shirapat – they had told him over the phone that the money was good.

When the news broke of the miners’ fate, his uncle, Rupiot Zaman went to Ksan along with six others from Magurmari.

“There was no evidence of anyone living in the plastic sheds where the men lived. No clothes, no bags. Only the cots that they slept on were there,” he said.

The men returned home four days later, empty-handed. 

“We were hoping that at least the bodies would be found, but the water was not receding and it was expensive for us to arrange food every day,” said Zaman, who has worked in a coal mine for more than 15 years

Cajoling her crying four-month-old daughter, while her two-and-half years old clings to her, Nafisa said, “My husband had sent his photo when he reached there on someone else’s phone in the village, since I don’t have a smartphone. The only other photo I have of him is from his ID card.”

As I leave, the angry voice of a woman breaks the eerie silence in the village: “Close those mines, otherwise all our sons will be gone.”

Names with (*) have been changed since they are minors.

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