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Life and death in the rathole: The scourge of coal mining

Workers staff a coal mining site in West Bengal.

It is business as usual at India’s illegal coal mines, despite a recent tragedy which killed four men. Every day numerous miners crawl around these dark holes, risking their lives and health.

‘Rathole’ mines – given the name because of the small size of the crevices through which miners have to crawl to mine for coal – are reputed as death traps for workers. Given recent events, the reason why, is  clear.

Four men who worked in an illegal coal mine became trapped there after a mudslide left them unable to evacuate. The mine was located on the border between Nagaland and Assam, in the village of Yonglok in the Longleng district. It was abandoned after it had been closed due to the prohibition on ‘rathole’ mining. The men had only returned to collect personal belongings.

Their deaths have thrown a spotlight on one of the major risks to workers’ health and safety in India. That is not to say India needed reminding. 

A coal mine in Jharkhand.

“Rathole mining is an illegal and dangerous practise…poverty, [however], means many works will accept the task”

A mine collapse in the Meghalaya village of Magurmari in December last year left fifteen workers trapped in a rathole mine 113 metres deep following a flood. Efforts to rescue the men have been futile. To date, rescue operations have recovered only two decomposed bodies from the site. 

Rathole mining is an illegal and dangerous practise. However, it continues to pervade many mining regions of the country. Meghalaya alone is believed to be home to around 5,000 such mines. Poverty, meanwhile, means many workers will accept the task of rathole mining, no matter the risks to health.

This will result in manual scavenging for coal or mining in unsafe conditions: below ground where the only route out is a small hole carved into the ground which may make it difficult to make a quick exit if one is needed. Mining outside the law often occurs on small mines occupying private land or disused facilities once run by the government. Outside of legislation, and often overlooked by legislators who may have financial stakes in the mines themselves, it is clear how these mines pose such a threat to workers.

“377 mining-related deaths occurred between 2015 and 2017. Of these, coal mining alone accounted for 210”

Even workers who escape death in the mines – legal or otherwise – could be left with severe health effects. Coal mining exposes workers to a plethora of noncommunicable diseases, from respiratory illness to congestive heart failure. This is to say nothing of the broader health effects on entire mining communities, which often reflect higher rates of diseases ranging from arthritis to tuberculosis.

The issue of worker safety in the mines is one which, amidst the tragedy in Meghalaya, was highlighted in the Lok Sabha. Information presented to MPs revealed 377 mining-related deaths occurred between 2015 and 2017. Of these, coal mining alone accounted for 210.

What the tragedies make clear is that the coal mines need to be closed down, for the sake of workers, their families and their communities. Yet with seeming weak political will and substandard enforcement, it is likely that more tragedies of the kinds seen in Meghalaya and Nagaland will be repeated in the near future.

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