India Coal Towns, Many Miners are Children

Times South Asia bureau chief Mark Magnier and photojournalist Daniel Berehulak report on the mining situation in the Jaintia Hills district of India, located in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. Perhaps as many as thousands of underage workers as young as 8, lured by the wages, leave school to work in coal mines under perilous conditions. The country officially upholds mining safety standards and forbids child labor, but loopholes in state laws allow widespread abuses. The young miners descend on rickety ladders made of branches into the makeshift coal mines, scrambling sideways into “rat hole” shafts so small that even kneeling becomes impossible.

India Child Coal Workers

Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

The young miners descend on rickety ladders made of branches into the makeshift coal mines dotting the Jaintia Hills in northeast India, scrambling sideways into “rat hole” shafts so small that even kneeling becomes impossible. Lying horizontally, they hack away with picks and their bare hands: Human labor here is far cheaper than machines.

Many wear flip-flops and shorts, their faces and lungs blackened by coal. None have helmets. Two hours of grinding work fills a cart half the size of a coffin that they drag back, crouching, to the mouth where a clerk credits their work. Most earn a dollar or two an hour.

“A big stone fell on a friend at a nearby mine last year, and he died,” said Sharan Rai, 16, taking a break near the entrance with his friend Late Boro, 14. Both started mining when they were 12. “The owners didn’t pay the family anything. I try and check if the walls look strong before I go in.”

Sharan may be leaving this hazardous work behind. He quit fourth grade years back, and an area civic group has persuaded him to return. Late, from Assam state, who’s never attended school and is illiterate, is more typical.

“Let Sharan go off, play the big man,” he said, fighting back tears. “I’ll cut coal. That’s my life.”

Thousands of children, some as young as 8, are believed to toil alongside adults in the northeast mines; their small bodies are well suited to the narrow coal seams. Many migrated legally from from Nepal or illegally from neighboring Bangladesh, lured by the wages.

Deaths are undocumented but far from rare; medical care is almost nonexistent. Many of the older children spend their pay on alcohol, gambling and prostitutes. Some drift away; others keep working for decades.

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