[Marxism] Children Toil in India’s Mines, Despite Legal Ban

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 26 07:57:59 MST 2013

NY Times February 25, 2013
Children Toil in India’s Mines, Despite Legal Ban

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.

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 

“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 

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 

Mr. Lanong also said that mines in Meghalaya follow national safety 

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.”

Sruthi Gottipati contributed reporting from Khliehriat, and Niharika 
Mandhana from New Delhi.

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