Meghalaya | India
I stand beside Bhopal Rai at the opening of a two-hundred foot deep illegal rat-hole mine in the Village of Shilanagar in the Jainita Hills region of Meghalaya, India. We are watching Geevan Magur carefully begin his descent into the darkness down a bamboo ladder to hand-mine coal. India’s reliance on coal intrigued me, and knowing Meghalaya produces a large majority of the country’s coal, I traveled there for three weeks to research the effect coal mining has on local people. While there, I met Magur and Rai, local miners whose livelihood depends solely on the illegal method of rat-hole mining.
Magur is a Nepalese man in his fifties who stands around five feet tall and is partially blind in his right eye. He is taking slow, calculated steps down the slick rings of the hand-made ladder deeper into the pit. An empty bamboo basket is strapped onto his back, his left hand grips tightly to the side of the ladder, and a pickax hangs by his side in his right hand. He wears no helmet or any other form of safety equipment. If he were to fall from this height, he wouldn’t survive. Overly alert and cautious, he says, “If I don’t work, my family doesn’t eat.” It is seven in the morning. This begins his 12-hour shift as a rat-hole miner.
Rat-hole mining, a primitive, dangerous, and illegal method of hand-mining coal in Meghalaya, involves digging pits, one to three-hundred-feet deep, into the ground to reach the coal vein. Once it is reached, small and narrow tunnels are made perpendicular to the vein. Miners, often children, crawl into the narrow shafts, sometimes only two-feet high, to hand-mine coal. “While one person is down in the pits,” Rai explains to me as his eyes survey the land, “another stands watch for the police. They patrol the area every day.” In April of 2014, the Indian Parliament closed the mines indefinitely due to environmental and safety concerns. “We know it’s illegal,” he says, “but if we don’t mine, how else will we live?”
Miners, like Bhopal Rai and Geevan Magur, not only face legal ramifications, but they also face the harsh reality of the mine’s dangerous conditions. I learn from Rai that no safety precautions are taken, and many workers lose their lives in the harsh environment. Inside the pitch-dark rat hole, the air is rich with sulfur, and the walls and ground are incessantly wet. Accidents happen suddenly and frequently. Cave-ins are common due to the instability of the earth once it’s mined. The rat-holes are also regularly known to flood, burying alive workers without the hope of rescue. In December of 2013, five workers died when a cable attached to a coal bucket snapped; fifteen men drowned in a mine in July of 2001; and in 2002, forty men were trapped in a similar accident when water rushed through a mine, killing them all. The Indian media, supported by human rights organizations, reported that one hundred miners have died in coal mining accidents in Meghalaya since 2012; however, since most miners are undocumented migrants with no access to proper safety equipment or organized rescue, there are no exact reports on the number of deaths each year.
Luckily for Bhopal Rai and Geevan Magur, they have escaped death or serious injury. They have, however, seen miners suffer falls from the rickety ladder that leads down to the bottom of the coal mines. Many times this can be a two to three-hundred-foot fall. “Every day when you leave home,” Rai says, “you’re not sure if you’ll come back.” Rai and Magur also know miners who suffer serious upper respiratory problems from the constant dust in the mines and workers who subdue the pains of mining with alcohol, which makes alcoholism prevalent in the village.
As Rai and I continue to wait for Geevan to return from the mine, Rai explains to me that he, like others in the village, have no other choice but to continue the illegal, unregulated, and unmonitored work. A twelve-hour-day hand-mining coal can bring in $8 to $10, which is a much higher wage than other jobs in the area. The pay is based on the output of coal. Baskets of coal, carried from the ratholes, are emptied into crates until they reach their 1500 kg (3300 lb) limit. One crate will bring in an average of 400 rupees, approximately $6. The wage is then split between the miners working that day. Typically Rai and Magur, with the help of Rai’s brothers, are able to fill two crates of coal a day; however, there is no guideline to how much or how little they work.
Rai and I finally see Geevan at the bottom of the ladder. Chunks of black coal are filled to the brim of his basket that he carries on his back. His body is covered in soot. His shoulders roll forward to adjust to the weight. As he starts his slow ascent Bhopal explains, “For us here in Shilanagar, it’s not a tough decision to continue this work. It’s dangerous and illegal, but I have to feed my family. It’s what I have to do.”