By GARDINER HARRIS, Published: February 25, 2013
KHLIEHRIAT, India — After descending 70 feet on a wobbly bamboo staircase into a dank pit, the teenage miners ducked into a black hole about two feet high and crawled 100 yards through mud before starting their day digging coal.
Meghalaya State is in the isolated eastern part of India.
They wore T-shirts, pajama-like pants and short rubber boots — not a hard hat or steel-toed boot in sight. They tied rags on their heads to hold small flashlights and stuffed their ears with cloth. And they spent the whole day staring death in the face.
Just two months before full implementation of a landmark 2010 law mandating that all Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14 be in school, some 28 million are working instead, according to Unicef. Child workers can be found everywhere — in shops, in kitchens, on farms, in factories and on construction sites. In the coming days Parliament may consider yet another law to ban child labor, but even activists say more laws, while welcome, may do little to solve one of India’s most intractable problems.
“We have very good laws in this country,” said Vandhana Kandhari, a child protection specialist at Unicef. “It’s our implementation that’s the problem.”
Poverty, corruption, decrepit schools and absentee teachers are among the causes, and there is no better illustration of the problem than the Dickensian “rathole” mines here in the state of Meghalaya.
Meghalaya lies in India’s isolated northeast, a stump of land squashed between China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Its people are largely tribal and Christian, and they have languages, food and facial features that seem as much Chinese as Indian.
Suresh Thapa, 17, said that he has worked in the mines near his family’s shack “since he was a kid,” and that he expects his four younger brothers to follow suit. He and his family live in a tiny tarp-and-stick shack near the mines. They have no running water, toilet or indoor heating.
On a recent day, Suresh was sitting outside his home sharpening his and his father’s pickaxes — something he must do twice a day. His mother, Mina Thapa, sat nearby nursing an infant and said Suresh chose mining himself.
“He works of his own free will,” she said. “He doesn’t listen to me anyway, even when I tell him something,” she added with a bittersweet laugh.
Ms. Thapa said that three of her younger sons go to a nearby government school and that they would go into the mines when they wanted to.
“If they don’t do this work, what other jobs are they going to get?” she asked.
India’s Mines Act of 1952 prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from working in coal mines, but Ms. Thapa said enforcing that law would hurt her family. “It’s necessary for us that they work. No one is going to give us money. We have to work and feed ourselves.”
The presence of children in Meghalaya’s mines is no secret. Suresh’s boss, Kumar Subba, said children work in mines throughout the region.
“Mostly the ones who come are orphans,” said Mr. Subba, who supervises five mines and employs 130 people who collectively produce 30 tons of coal each day.
He conceded that working conditions inside his and other mines in the region were dangerous. His mines are owned by a state lawmaker, he said.
“People die all the time,” he said. “You have breakfast in the morning, go to work and never come back. Many have died this way.”
While the Indian government has laws banning child labor and unsafe working conditions, states are mostly charged with enforcing those laws. The country’s police are highly politicized, so crackdowns on industries sanctioned by the politically powerful are rare. Police officers routinely extract bribes from coal truckers, making the industry a source of income for officers.
“Child labor is allowed to continue in Meghalaya by those in positions of power and authority, as it is across India,” said Shantha Sinha, chairwoman of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
In 2010, Impulse, a nongovernmental organization based in Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital, reported that it had found 200 children — some as young as 5 — working in 10 local mines. The group estimated that as many as 70,000 children worked in about 5,000 mines.
Its findings led to images in the Indian news media of small children working in horrifying conditions. State officials angrily denied that there was any child labor problem.
Investigations soon followed by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, as well as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, one of the nation’s most respected independent research groups. Both confirmed the presence of child laborers.
Despite visiting during the monsoon season, when many mines are closed or barely operational, the Tata group found 343 children age 15 or younger working in 401 mines and seven coal depots. The group had intended to conduct a more extensive investigation, but the “researchers had to stop data collection, as local interest groups threatened them with bodily harm if they continued with the study,” the report noted.
“The mining industry is clearly aware of the issue of child labor and the illegality of the act, and yet children continue to be employed,” the report concluded.
Bindo M. Lanong, Meghalaya’s deputy chief minister for mining and geology, flatly denied the investigations’ findings.
“There is no child labor in Meghalaya,” he said in a telephone interview this month. “These allegations are totally absurd. They are not based on facts.”
Mr. Lanong also said that mines in Meghalaya follow national safety regulations.
Yet, several mines visited in Meghalaya had no ventilation and only one entrance; they followed no mining plan, did not use limestone to reduce explosion risks and had minimal roof supports, among other illegal and dangerous conditions. Their bamboo staircases were structurally unsound and required miners to walk sideways to avoid falling. Miners said those conditions were endemic.
Mr. Lanong responded: “What should we do, stop mining? I ask those people if rathole mining is banned, you will be interfering with the liberty of the landowners.”
Despite offering high pay, mine managers nonetheless have trouble finding enough workers in this area, according to the Tata report. The local tribal population largely shuns the jobs, so children and other laborers are brought here from Nepal and Bangladesh in informal networks that advocates have decried as trafficking. Many are soon trapped in a classic swindle: although pay is high, mine operators charge huge premiums to deliver drinking water, food and other staples to mining camps. As a result, many child laborers are unable to send money home or earn enough to leave.
There are few schools near the mining camps, and those that are available teach in local dialects — languages that immigrant children generally do not speak. So even if they want to get educated, many children cannot.
Wildcat mining has become so endemic in the Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya that much of the land resembles a moonscape, denuded of trees and brush. Roads are choked with coal trucks, and roadsides are covered with piles of black rocks. Mining has led “to a host of issues such as subsidence, degradation of soil and water resources as well as air pollution,” the Tata report stated.
But it has also brought money for those who are from the region. Suresh said he earns $37 to $74 a week, a healthy salary in a country where two-thirds of the population lives on less than $15 per week. He gives the money to his family, he said.
After lunch, Suresh got ready to return underground. He said that he had seen people die, “but I haven’t had an accident yet.”
“Well,” he amended, “I hurt my back once when the mud fell in, but we still had to work the next day.”
“How can we not work?” he asked. “We have to eat.”