Reporting from Ladrymbai, India
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.
India has a national mining law, plus a right-to-education bill, and it has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, minus a few key clauses on the speed of implementation. But tribal land rights in Meghalaya state trump some national laws, and other laws are largely ignored, creating loopholes big enough to drive a coal truck through, activists say. The rules are meant to protect cottage industries, but many mines are owned by state and national lawmakers or their relatives.
"We know a few owners control everything," said Hasina Kharbhih, founder of Impulse Network, a child rights group based in the Meghalaya town of Shillong. "They get away scot-free."
Navigating the narrow shafts requires a slithering, snake-like movement, and a foreigner's technique elicits laughter from miners, even as an explosion in a neighboring mine rocks the walls.
The miners are unalarmed; Sharan says claustrophobia, intense exhaustion and fear of collapsing walls ease after a few weeks. But the visitor reemerges into the sunlight feeling damp, bruised and lucky to have survived.
Commercial coal mining in India started in 1774 and has boomed in recent years with the economy. Officially, India had 81 accidental coal-mine deaths in 2009. But deaths in Meghalaya aren't recorded or investigated, with most hushed up to avoid mines being shuttered.
The number of children working in the state's 5,000 coal mines is a matter of dispute, with Impulse estimating tens of thousands and local politicians putting it in the hundreds. Few dispute, however, that the vast majority of India's underage coal miners work in Meghalaya.
Almost everyone knows someone who's died in the "death pits." Three died recently after a shaft collapsed, four when a hopper fell.
"Responsible" mine owners pay $200-$500 for funerals, others nothing.
"If you die, it's your fate," said Shyam Rai, 22, who is not related to Sharan and who's worked since he was 17. "I heard coal mines had diamonds, but I sure haven't found any."
The nearest medical dispensary, selling little more than aspirin, acne soap and herbal remedies, is a few miles away in Latyrke. "We don't have much medicine," said Pintu Roy, a clerk at the dispensary. "If it's serious, drive to Shillong," three hours away.
The miners are as careful as their limited resources and skills allow. Sharan checks the mine shaft for the risk of collapse by tapping the walls.
"If it goes 'dung-dung,' it's bad; 'tak-tak,' it's OK," he said. "Sure, you breathe in coal dust, but it doesn't hurt you."
State Mining Minister Bindo Lanong said reports of child labor are exaggerated, that most children are just helping their parents, and that a planned state law should curb excesses.
Mine owner Phillip Pala, whose brother serves in India's parliament, said accidents happen only occasionally. "There's a risk in everything," he said.
Jaintia Hills is India's Wild West. Merchants in shacks sell boots, potato chips, booze and little else. Coal trucks, hand painted with images of various gods, belch black smoke up the steep roads. "Life is Not Forever," reads a sign on one.
Adult miners can earn $150 a week, a good wage. But many squander the money.
"We try to convince people not to drink or meet strange women," said Nirom Basumatary, the Biateraim Presbyterian Church's secretary. "But we're not so successful."
Empty whiskey bottles litter the coal piles, line the roadside and languish under the beds at Mid Valley Hotel, Ladrymbai's best.
"We sell 10,000 bottles of beer and booze daily," said Rama Chandra, at one of 31 roadside liquor stores in a town of 8,000. "If I mined, I'd drink lots too."
Dice and card games operate openly. "A try only costs 25 cents," a dice-game hustler in the main market yelled at transfixed gamblers. "It's easy."
Sharan steers clear. "If you win, they beat you up to get their money back," he said.
Sharan, with a warm smile, a bandanna and a penchant for stylish clothes when he's not mining, lives in a 15-by-20-foot mud-floored hut beside the mine with seven family members. They cook on an open fire and sleep on a fly-infested platform.
"There's a lot of drinking around here," said Devika Rai, 39, Sharan's mother. "Men fight."
Late lives nearby with his sister-in-law. He hasn't seen his parents in years. "I don't really have a dream," he said when asked, affecting an uncaring air. "I just cut coal."
Parental ignorance, poverty and the money draw children to the mines, activists say. Most are boys, but Kala Rai, 13, also not related to Sharan, earned $25 a month dragging coal-laden carts after her father got sick, before school officials lured her back. "I wasn't good at it," she said. "I'm very happy to be back."
Mine-related aboveground jobs, cutting coal and unloading the hopper, are less dangerous but pay less. Chhai Lyngdoh, 14, earns about $5 a day to climb a slimy ladder and tip a 5,000-pound coal hopper repeatedly with his slight body.
Meghalaya's government, with only seven labor inspectors and no vehicle, all but ignores child labor and safety problems, keen to goose the economy, critics said. Recently it acknowledged that 222 children worked in 20 villages mining and hauling coal and doing related jobs, but it has done nothing to rescue them.
Sharan, meanwhile, looks forward to school, an opportunity others won't have.
"I want to be a doctor," he said. "Then if someone's sick, I can help them out."
Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.