The road from Shillong to Jaintia Hills used to be an eyesore. Heaps of coal dumped on either side of the road was a common sight. Now, this is one area in the country where the green cover is fast returning.
Last April, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a carpet ban on coal mining in Meghalaya following a petition by civil society groups, including the Dimasa Students Union of Assam, which filed a petition complaining that acid from the coalmines was polluting the Kopili river in Assam‚Äôs Karbi Anglong district.
The ban has ensured that no more black diamond is extracted from the rat holes of Jaintia Hills, which used to be the mining hub of Meghalaya for a decade.
At the heart of the illegal mining discourse in Meghalaya was the rampant use of child labourers in the rat-hole mines. The NGT ban has ensured that thousands of children, who had either migrated with their families or had been trafficked, no longer have to risk their lives crawling into the pitch-dark rat-holes and digging out coal. However, their lives have only become more difficult.
While the NGT order clearly specifies that the state government has to collect royalty on the coal that had already been extracted, the state is yet to spell out how it would rehabilitate the thousands of children who had toiled for years in extremely hazardous conditions.
It was in 2010 that Tehelka took the lead among the national mainstream media to expose the nasty truth about child labour in Meghalaya‚Äôs coalmines. Tehelka‚Äôs cover story (Half-life of the coal child by Kunal Majumder, 3 July 2010) shook the national conscience.
At Jowai in Jaintia Hills, Tehelka was once again able to trace Pemba Tamang and his friends, fiddling with coal balls and talking about their hazardous days inside the rat-hole mines. The 18-year-old Nepali boy was one of the many child labourers whom Tehelka had earlier interviewed in its series of stories on the rat-hole mines.
Tamang was one of the lucky ones. After being rescued two years ago, he has been part of the rehabilitation programme facilitated by Shillong-based Impulse NGO Network.
‚ÄúIt was a risky business,‚ÄĚ recalls Tamang. ‚ÄúOnce, my head was badly injured. Life was on a razor‚Äôs edge, but what to do? We were in the mines to make a living. I had been working in the mines since I was eight, after moving to Jaintia Hills from my village in Assam. My father had died eight years ago, when I was only 10. I had to work for seven hours a day, earning about Rs. 3,000 (per month).‚ÄĚ
Tamang was among the 1,200 child miners who were rescued and rehabilitated by the NGO. Most of those rescued were minors, who were either trafficked or came in to work as seasonal migrant workers.
Until two years ago, Tamang had to fix a torch to his head with a rubber band, slip on his red gumboots and pray for his safety before he stepped into the coalmine. Now, he has undergone vocational training and plans to return to his native village when the rest of his family gets their pending money from the mine owner.
‚ÄúI have done an electrician‚Äôs course,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI plan to go back to my village and see how things shape up. It is an uncertain future for thousands of children; they are getting engaged in other work or migrating elsewhere.‚ÄĚ
Apart from Tamang, brothers Bikash Adhikari, 12, and Bishal Adhikari, 10, who were trafficked from Nepal to work in the coalmines of Jaintia Hills, were also rescued.
‚ÄúWe could rescue only 1,200 child miners,‚ÄĚ says Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of Impulse NGO Network. ‚ÄúThis is just the tip of the iceberg. We have been at it for eight years and tried all means to force the government to act on this, but it was always in denial about the child miners. We have done a detailed study of 5,000 rat-hole mines in Jaintia Hills district and our estimate is that 70,000 children were engaged in mining. The ban has saved the lives of many children who come from poor families. But who will ensure that they are not trafficked elsewhere? For NGOs like us, it is difficult to support thousands of children. The onus is on the government.‚ÄĚ
In an earlier interview to Tehelka, Labour Minister Ampareen Lyndoh had said that it would be a difficult task for the government. ‚ÄúA large percentage of the children are migrants,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThe labour department may not be able to figure out every individual case.‚ÄĚ
Meanwhile, the mine owners are busy counting their losses. Off record, some of them admit that they did rampantly employ children and shamelessly add that they did not bother to find out where they have gone now.
‚ÄúOur money is also gone,‚ÄĚ says a mine owner from Rymbai on the condition of anonymity. ‚ÄúThe politicians got most of it and that‚Äôs why they were blind to the fact that we were engaging children (in the mines). We have no records of where they went. Some families are still there because some owners have not cleared their dues.‚ÄĚ
In Meghalaya, it is an open secret that those in the corridors of power had interests in the rat-hole mining, which had only benefited a handful of coal barons.