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Lauding the illegal in Silkyara rescue operation

When poverty compels labourers to disregard safety to get a job, those in positions of power take advantage of this vulnerability, like in rathole mining.

Lauding the illegal in Silkyara rescue operation

Unfortunate: An ILO report says India leads in the number of deaths at construction sites. PTI

Dipankar Gupta


VICTIMS of an ‘all rules broken’ tunnelling project were rescued by experts of rathole mining, which is an illegal practice as it is banned in India. This irony is so gritty that you can literally taste the ferrous filings.

While we celebrate the nail-biting finish that brought out the workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel for 17 days, let us not overlook the fact that this tragedy should never have happened. That we had to then rely on those whose job is to earn a living by breaking the law only tests our policies. It also reminds us that it is the poor who so often make our lives so comfortable.

Contrast the daring 2018 rescue of trapped boys in a cave in Thailand with the operation in Uttarakhand. First, the ill-fated campers in Thailand just ran straight into bad luck as they got caught by a freak flood with no way out. In Uttarakhand, the construction workers were stuck in rubble because the law was flouted and safety norms ignored. It wasn’t bad luck.

In Thailand, again, the heroes were professional cave divers who did what they did as a hobby, but that required superior skills and not just slog and toil for long hours. The team that saved the construction workers comprised poor rathole miners. Their expertise lay in being able to suffer protracted cramped conditions while burrowing down narrow tunnels in order to mine coal, primarily in Meghalaya.

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal had banned rathole mining, but it continues surreptitiously in the Jaintia and Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, where the coal seams are very thin. In such conditions, traditional mining techniques are useless and that is why the owners of such enterprises employ destitute, unskilled poor to toil in these slithering tunnels.

Rathole mining is a common practice in Meghalaya for a reason that is as cynical as it can get. The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution protects community rights over land in this state. Private parties have interpreted this to mean that they can exploit the terrain without any hindrance from the government. This is why rathole mining has continued in Meghalaya.

Rathole mining is not just unhealthy but also dangerous as several workers have died in dreadful pits on account of flooding. Besides outright physical hazards, this form of coal extraction also damages the environment. Most notably, it has turned Meghalaya’s Kopili river acidic.

Through all this, it’s the Sixth Schedule that protects the rapacious mine owners.

Long periods of repetitive action conditions these workers to adeptly dig, scoop and shovel dirt to get to the coal buried deep in thin slivers. ‘Skilled labour’ is an incorrect term for them, for the process essentially is practised groan and grind. When we feted them for their daring rescue, did we spare a thought about what kind of life these ‘heroes’ would be going back to?

Their time in public notice was very short. In the evening gloom, they came, worked non-stop in blinding darkness for 26 hours and barely got a spot in the sun before they left. We don’t really even know their names, nor where they came from. Some unconfirmed reports suggest that most of them were from minority communities and tribal groups, but are we sure?

The main reason these rathole miners were inducted into the mission was because the sophisticated American-made, horizontal drilling auger machine broke down, irreparably. Time was running out, several metres were yet to be dug, it all seemed too far.

This is the second load of heavy irony; when imported, costly machines fail, it is cheap hands and claws that come to the rescue.

Rathole miners are, very fortuitously, adept at cutting horizontally, for that is how coal is extracted from thin two-metre deposits in Meghalaya. When auger machines collapsed, the horizontal digging was done by the rathole miners. Imagine, all too often, children are employed to do such high-risk jobs and, yet, conscience does not prick those who exploit them.

The unfortunate truth is that risk is not factored in when even ordinary construction works happen. Rarely is safety gear provided to those who are laying bricks or plastering walls high in the air. Bridges are known to fall, killing workers at construction sites — and all this happens not just in faraway hills, where tunnels are burrowed, but in urban centres, too.

An International Labour Organisation (ILO) report contends that India leads in the number of deaths at construction sites, with 38 fatal accidents taking place, on an average, every day. When poverty compels labourers to disregard safety to get a job, those in positions of power take advantage of this vulnerability. We saw this once again in the aftermath of the rathole miners’ daring operation.

After they rescued the 41 workers who were trapped in the Silkyara tunnel last month, they were patronisingly handed a few garlands, and sent right back to where they came from. One would have thought that this devastating incident would inspire a rethink on rathole mining and, indeed, on flouting of environmental norms when cutting into mountains to build tunnels. Far from it. Contrarily, we seem to be proud of the fact that rathole miners are around in our vicinity and we sing yet another round of praise to the Indian gift of jugaad. 

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