India's child coal miners

Children as young as 7 mine coal under deplorable conditions in northeastern India, where local authority overrules national laws against such practices.

Daniel Etter
Podum, age 12, rides in a box used to transport coal. He’s Nepalese. He, his father, and one of his three brothers work in the mines. He says he earns $30 a week. Note the flashlight strapped to his head.

Under life-threatening conditions, an estimated 70,000 children work in the coal mines in the Jaintia Hills in northeast India, according to a children’s rights organization working to end the practice. The youngest of the miners are just 7 years old.

For the equivalent of a few dollars a day – $5 per cartload of coal – they work narrow, unreinforced seams in 5,000 small mines. Most are Nepalese, who are allowed to apply to work here, but many are Bangladeshis, who are here illegally. Others are Indian. Some have been sold by their families as indentured laborers, according to Impulse, an India-based children’s rights group.

While Indian law prohibits child labor, India’s Constitution grants the tribal and native communities in this region exclusive rights over their land, which includes operating the mines. Lawsuits against mine owners are conveyed by national courts to local courts, where mine owners are unlikely to be prosecuted, says Hasina Kharbhih, head of Impulse.

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Mine manager Purna Lama says there is no money for safety measures. Cave-ins are always a threat; wooden ladders leading down to quarries are slippery with moss; there is little or no access to medical care, sanitation, safe drinking water, or even adequate ventilation. Mr. Lama estimates that there are eight accidents a month in the mines, at least two of which are fatal.

A mine owner, asked about the dismal working conditions and child labor, dismissed the claims as media rumors.
Impulse and another nongovernmental organization are pressuring the mine owners. Some have stopped hiring children.

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