[Marxism] Children Toil in India’s Mines, Despite Legal Ban
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Tue Feb 26 07:57:59 MST 2013
NY Times February 25, 2013
Children Toil in India’s Mines, Despite Legal Ban
By GARDINER HARRIS
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
“We have very good laws in this country,” said Vandhana Kandhari, a
child protection specialist at Unicef. “It’s our implementation that’s
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
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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