Around 3 pm on December 12, Md Shahir Islam, 33, called up his wife Shazeda Khatun. Four months after he had left home to work in coal mines in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills, Islam had some good news. He was planning to return home soon from what Shazeda knew to be a particularly risky mine, where Islam had been employed for a fortnight. Hanging up, Islam promised to send money. The next day, he went in. There has been no news since.
“He said he would send Rs 30,000. We are not even sure if we will see his body,” Khatun says, holding her youngest, a four-year-old daughter, close and breaking down, at the family’s house in Bhangnamari village in Assam, around 400 km away. While the search for Islam and 14 other miners in a water-filled shaft down a collapsed mine at Ksan in Saipung area in East Jaintia Hills continues, Shazeda, who is in her late 20s, has lost hope.
Shazeda’s neighbour Obhijaan Khatun, also in her late 20s, says husband Amir Hussain (30), called her up just before entering the mine around 2 am on December 13. “He was eating before entering the mine. Our youngest child, 2, started crying, saying ‘Baba, baba (father, father)’, and my husband spoke to him. He then told me he would call after work. That call never came.”
At least three workers from villages under the Panbari police station in Chirang district of Assam are feared dead inside the mine, whereas one had a narrow escape.
The mine where a desperate rescue operation is on to try save the 15 workers was a rat-hole mine, in which narrow tunnels (3- to 4-feet high) are dug into mountains for workers to move through and extract coal. In April 2014, the National Green Tribunal banned the technique for being unscientific, ecologically hazardous and dangerous for workers. At the time, Meghalaya’s annual coal production was nearly 6 million tonnes, and it is an open secret that rampant illegal mining is still on.
A large chunk of the workers come from here, in Chirang district, a Bengali-speaking Muslim-dominated pocket, where many are entangled in Assam’s citizenship-proving processes like the National Register of Citizens. Almost every other family is landless, and the men travel out for work, including to the Meghalaya mines.
Shazeda says Islam had no idea what was legal and what not. For their family the pressing question was how to make ends meet and repay the Rs 3 lakh debt they were in. Father Md Abdul Miya, 60, a farmer, says Islam had been duped of around Rs 4 lakh by a businessman some years ago. What Shazeda knew was that the work was not safe, from countless stories of people who had gone and returned.
“Before he left for Meghalaya, he told me it was the best way to earn quick money. We needed it,” Shazeda says. They have three other children, a son (9) and two daughters (7, 4).
Islam’s own brother Md Shahmat Ali (25) once worked as a coal miner but gave it up eight years ago. Describing the work as dangerous and physically exhausting, he says no one would do it unless desperate. “I used to work as a wheelbarrow-puller. One guy would cut (extract) the coal and I would put it in a small wheelbarrow and pull it crawling towards the opening of the main shaft, from where the coal would be lifted up by a crane. For six to seven hours a day, from pre-dawn to noon, you are just crawling, supporting yourself on your elbows. It is so dark that if your torch stops working, you will never be able to come out,” Shahmat says.
A ‘Citizen’s Report’, prepared by civil society groups in the state and submitted to the Supreme Court last month on coal mining continuing in the state despite the ban, says, “Workers enter the cave early in the morning and keep on working till they are tired, or if they are hungry or when they feel that they have earned enough money for the day.”
That money, in these parts, can be a lot. At Rs 150 per wheelbarrow, a labourer can earn up to Rs 1,500 a day. Now, as an agricultural worker, cultivating vegetables, Shahmat’s daily earnings are no more than Rs 200.
Obhijaan says husband Hussain left hoping to pay back the Rs 2 lakh loan he took eight years ago to buy a small piece of land and build their thatched house. “He could not repay that loan and had to then take further loans.”
When he left on November 16, it was Hussain’s second stint at the mines. Earlier, during the summer of 2018, he went for a month and earned around Rs 60,000.
The third miner from Chirang trapped in the mines is Monirual Islam, 19. His father Solibor Rahman, 60, worked in the Meghalaya mines periodically from 1985 to 2012 while brother Manik Ali, 25, has been going for the last nine years. Says Manik, “Our mother was diagnosed with liver cancer three years ago. For her treatment in Guwahati, we borrowed Rs 1.5 lakh. Mother died, but we still have the loan and we incurred additional loans too.”
Rahman, who now farms a small land he owns, says no father would ever ask his sons to work in rat-hole mines if there were other options. “Earlier, Manik had gone to Delhi and Haryana to work as a labourer at a stone-crushing facility. He came back with tuberculosis. My brother’s son is working as a labourer in a road-building project in Arunachal Pradesh but the pay is nothing, Rs 400 per day,” he says.
Rahman’s neighbour Fazial Haque (35) claims two of his brothers, Insan and Minzen, died of tuberculosis after working in stone-crushing facilities in Haryana. “Almost everyone who goes to work in Delhi or Haryana comes back with tuberculosis,” Haque says.
Saheb Ali (21) knows he can’t thank “Allah” enough. He was inside the mine that morning of December 13, pulling a wheelbarrow through one of the ‘rat-hole’ sized tunnels. Suddenly, he says, he heard sounds of water rushing in and felt an abnormal wind. He left his wheelbarrow and crawled as quickly as he could towards the main shaft, where four other workers — one a record keeper who keeps account of how many men are working and how many wheelbarrows of coal are extracted, and three to load the coal from the wheelbarrows to a box, to be hitched up by a crane — were present. All five were rescued.
As for the rest, his story is no different from the others. “In our villages, there is rampant unemployment. I need Rs 400 per day to support my family, including my unemployed brother, his wife, their child, my sister, my mother and me,” he says, adding that he has been doing the mine work for six-seven years, after having tried his hand at odd jobs. Saheb has only studied till Class 6 at the local school. “By the 13th day of working in that mine, I had transported 100 gari (wheelbarrow) of coal and earned 15,000. That is good money.”
Explaining how Chirang labourers keep the Meghalaya mines running, Saheb says they are approached by ‘sardars’, as the labour contractors or coal mine managers are known. According to police records, the sardar of the ill-fated mine was James Sukhlain, who is still absconding. But, Saheb says, between Sukhlain and the labourers there are multiple sardars, through whom coal mine owners spread the word to villages of West Garo Hills district and Assam that labourers are required.
Manik says that the labourers then take a bus to the nearest town in Meghalaya, followed by a shared vehicle to a village near the mining site. The workers stay in hutments there and work.
Saheb does not believe any of his co-workers — he says there are 17 inside, two more than the official version — will come out alive.
But will he go back? He doesn’t hesitate. “If the government does nothing to support the poor, then many would be compelled to work in a mine. Yes, I might go back.”