The child miners of Meghalaya

Thousands of children risk their lives to work in “rat hole” mines in northeastern Indian state, earning $60 a week.

Karishma Vyas Last Modified: 07 Oct 2013 13:30

Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya: Pemba Tamang slides on his bright red gumboots, fits a torch to his head and says a little prayer. “God, please bring me back out alive.”

He walks out of his tarpaulin shack wielding a pickaxe and swaggers across monsoon green hills to a 15-meter-deep pit dug crudely into the earth.

He will spend the next seven hours here, crouched deep inside a “rat hole” less than a meter high digging for coal. “You have no control over your life here,” he says. “Because you never know when you’re going to die.”

Death is not something most 17-year-olds think about, but it has lingered over Pemba ever since he was eight, when he first came to Jaintia Hills in India’s northeast to work in the coal pits.

His father had just died from tuberculosis. Still nursing a five-week-old baby, Pemba’s mother moved the family from their dirt-poor village in neighbouring Assam state to the lucrative mines of Meghalaya so she could earn money selling food to truck drivers and labourers.

But it was never going to be enough to feed her three growing boys, and soon Pemba and his older brother started working in the “rat holes”, earning about $60 each a week to support their family.

Impulse, a local NGO fighting child labour in Meghalaya state, estimates there are around 70,000 children like Pemba who work in the mines, either digging for coal or loading thousands of trucks bound for the energy-hungry industrial sector across India and into neighbouring Bangladesh.

Illegally trafficked

Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of Impulse, says she’s discovered children as young as five working in Jaintia Hills.

The mines are so small and narrow that only someone the size of a child can squeeze inside to extract the coal.

Most of the under-age workers have been illegally trafficked into the region from Nepal and Bangladesh by agents working for mine owners.

Desperate families are promised handsome salaries in exchange for their children’s work, but they often have no idea that they will end up living in dangerous, slave-like conditions in Meghalaya.

“Many of the families out there are still looking for their children,” says Kharbhih. “They haven’t heard from them for the last two or three years.”


Some of these families at least will never see their children again. A few years ago local newspapers reported the discovery of skeletons inside mine shafts. They are believed to be those of children who worked there, but there has been no inquiry or arrest.

“Children have been dying in these rat holes and the dead bodies are not actually being taken back because it’s not possible. There’s no way they can get them out. And they are not being reported because in the context of our state, they’re illegal migrants,” says Kharbhih.

Pemba is terrified of suffering the same fate.

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