Today the world celebrates International Child Rights Day. While declarations and promises are made to guarantee safe living conditions for children, little is known about an estimated 70,000 bonded child labourers working in ‘rat mines’ of Meghalaya state in India.
The Impulse NGO Network, an independent human rights organisation working in Shillong, Meghalaya, estimates that about 70,000 illegal child labourers from Nepal and Bangladesh work as bonded labourers in the mines in Jaintia Hills. It is estimated that about 40,000 children are from Bangladesh, while 30,000 are from Nepal. These mines are notorious for their inhuman working conditions, including the lack of medical and other safety standards. The mines here are infamous as the ‘rat mines’ of Meghalaya. Mine shafts, as shown in one news video, are nothing but crude holes, narrow in diameter, dug into the hills. [http://www.tubaah.com/details.php?video_id=51217]
Under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution the tribal and native communities residing in Meghalaya have exclusive rights over their land which include for mining operations. While mining is legal, the methods used like bonded and child labour, are illegal. The state government has so far not attempted to deal with this most inhuman treatment meted out against the children smuggled into the mines from neighbouring countries.
Every day, truck loads of coal cross the Indian border to Bangladesh. The vehicles return with children, who are lured into the mining industry with the promise of better wages and living conditions. In most cases the children are purchased by middlemen or abducted and sold by gangs in Nepal and Bangladesh to the mining mafia in Meghalaya.
The price for a child varies from 50 to 75 US dollars. The children have to work for free, as their work is considered as repayment of the debt they owe, which is nothing more than the price at which they were bought. Several of the mine owners in the region have influence over the state’s politicians. Some of them are even seated in the state legislative assembly. Their clout in the corridors of power is evidenced by the lack of intervention to prevent the illegal practice.
For instance, the mining and geology department of the Government of Meghalaya issued a notification concerning its mining policy on 24 September 2009. It is an invitation to the public to participate in the state’s attempt to finalise its mining regulations. After a debate in the state legislature these will have the effect of a law governing mining of minerals and natural resources in the state. The state government has made no attempt to address the most gruesome fact concerning mining in the state — rampant child labour. The notification could also be viewed at http://meghalaya.nic.in/policy/mining%20policy%202009.pdf
A few months ago, human skeletons were recovered beneath a pile of coal in a mine in Jaintia Hills. It was suspected that the skeletons were the remains of children who lost their lives due to suffocation in the mine shafts or in other accidents during the mining operations. The Impulse NGO Network investigated the case and found that the suspicion was true.
The investigation also revealed that such deaths are common in the mines and the dead bodies buried in undisclosed graves near the mines, often under piles of earth. The children are instructed under threat not to disclose their foreign identity to anyone they meet. They have no freedom to move out of the premises of the mine where they work. Working hours are long, often from day break to nightfall without rest. They have no means to communicate to the outside world, much less to their families. The only tools the children have to extract coal or limestone are shovels or pickaxes. There are no medical facilities available near the mines.
Not all children are boys. There are considerable numbers of girls who have been bought by the mine owners. Instances of sexual abuse are rampant. Children fall prey to the mine owners, managers, to other elder workers and even to truck drivers. But not a single case of child abuse or sexual abuse of a child has been successfully investigated in Jaintia Hills mine area. It is also reported that some children are trafficked further from the mines to the cities for prostitution.
The child labour in Jaintia Hills is evidence of the rampant corruption within the state’s administrative system and also the human smuggling along the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bangladesh borders. Without the connivance of the officers attached to the border security agencies it is impossible for such large numbers of children to be smuggled into India. The only two agencies that directly intervene in the mining operations are the state police and the officers working for the state labour department. The presence of large numbers of bonded child labourers in the mines, in spite of bonded and child labour being statutory offenses is proof of the fact that officers working for the two agencies are part of the corrupt system that is in place in Meghalaya.
The overwhelming number of children brought from Nepal and Bangladesh also indicates the living conditions for children in these countries. In most cases children have reported that they were sent to the mines after their parents accepted money from middlemen engaged in child trafficking. So the governments in Nepal and Bangladesh are also equally responsible for this uninterrupted child trafficking and child labour.
International Child Rights Day is not going to change the living conditions of children working as bonded labourers in Jaintia Hills. Neither will it stop the inflow of trafficked children into these mines from neighbouring countries. It is also true that similar forms of cruelty are practiced against children within Nepal and Bangladesh.
In India, it is common knowledge that thousands of children are employed as child labourers, for instance in the firecracker manufacturing industry in Shivakashi and granite mines in Karnataka. Child labour is rampant in the leather and garment manufacturing regions in Bangladesh. It is prominent in most service industries in Nepal, and the country is notorious for being a heaven for paedophiles.
Yet, today is an occasion to once again remind the governments in India, Bangladesh and Nepal that by failing to put an end to the inhuman practice of child trafficking and slavery, they are participating in or at the very least condoning an inhuman trade that violates all norms of human rights and the fundamentals of humanity. The continuing child slavery in Jaintia Hills indicates the standards of human rights in India and above all those of its children.