If you travel about 90 kilometres away from the city of Shilong in north-eastern India, you will be stunned by the beauty of the Jaintia hills but as you walk towards the coal mines, you will be hit by a glaring reality. You will see child miners.
Instead of going to school, young children are sent to work in mines that are known as “rat mines” and where the shafts are little more than crude, narrow holes dug into the hills.
The holes are so small that any adult would find it difficult to enter them and extract coal. Hasina Kharbhih is the team leader of the Impulse NGO Network, which has brought out a report about the gruesome conditions the children are exposed to.
“They normally use a small kind of a cart with four little wheels tied with a rope outside. The children sit there and go into the rat holes to dig the coal,” says Kahrbhih.
Meghalaya’s vast coal reserves are private
The state of Meghalaya has some 550 million tons of coal reserves, which is also the state’s biggest source of revenues. However, the state government has no direct control of this black gold industry, which is privately owned.
Arindam Som, the Commissioner Secretary of the Meghalaya Mining and Geology Department, explains that “mining has been going on for the past 40 or 50 years even though mining leases have not been given. Mining is totally carried out by private people and the government of Meghalaya does not play a role.”
Activists say that in the absence of government interference the influx of children workers from the neighbouring countries continues.
International borders are very porous, enabling child trafficking
Hasina deplores the fact that the international borders are not strictly controlled: “The mines in Meghalaya normally get their regular supply of labourers from Bangladesh and Nepal. These children come with migrant labourers to be put in for bonded labour. Although border security forces are there in the border but this has never been looked into very seriously."
But Som, a civil servant, says it is important not to exaggerate: “You cannot say that they are being brought because there is a porous border with Meghalaya. For historical reasons, the movement cannot be controlled although there are regulatory measures. There is nothing called child slavery but there is child labour and the government is trying to create awareness."
According to official statistics, 21.6 million children aged between five and 14 out of a total of 300 million are victims of child labour in South Asia. Experts say that it is high time that the governments of India, Bangladesh and Nepal looked for ways of replacing the pick axe with a pen in the hands of the children.
Author: Debarati Mukherjee
Editor: Thomas Bärthlein