Sunday 8 March 2009

The coal mines of Meghalaya

This past week I went on a five day research trip into northeast India, joined by my colleagues Nick Sankey, Shailaja CM and Dilu Tamang. As our Circus Children Project draws to a successful close we have been looking at various other situations that could be considered as having a negative impact on Nepalese children who have found their way, by one means or another, to India. Over Christmas I had picked up a press report which suggested that there were trafficked Nepalese children working in the coal mines of Meghalaya, the Indian State which lies on Bangladesh's northern border. We decided to look into the mines (so to speak) and sent a research team there last month for a preliminary visit to meet the NGO Impulse and its dynamic Founder/Director, Hasina Kharbhih (who was named in the article). Upon receiving their intriguing report I felt that I wanted to see the situation for myself.

The target area for our visit was the Jaintia hills in the eastern part of the State, this being the main coal mining area. I suppose that this could once have been considered to be an area of outstanding natural beauty with considerable tourism potential but it seems to have suffered from years of environmental indifference that probably even pre-dated the mining which started just a generation ago. Driving into the area I noticed the almost total absence of bird life, including even the common scavengers that you see in the Himalayan countryside such as crows and myna birds. I suspect this is through a combination of hunting, the planting of sterile pine forests and burning of scrub which seemed to be going on all around. On top of this there is now the uncontrolled mining which is open cast, pit or "rat hole" - small tunnels that lead to seams in the hillside.

We had heard before our visit of the existence of a "coal mafia" which dominates the mining industry and of the risk to life and limb of nosing around and asking too many questions. However when we got to the area of the mines we were made most welcome and families were quick to share with us details of their lives. OK, perhaps we were being misled but the impression we gained was that we were in the midst of a community of Nepalese men, women and children - families - who were economic migrants, earning good money and living a decent domestic life. That's more than can be said of the rural areas of Nepal whence many of the families originate. Undoubtedly there are health and safety issues at the mines. Unlike Dilu Tamang (pictured bottom right) I elected not to descend a pit on a rickety ladder where the handrail consisted of no more than a branch. I am sure deaths and injuries go unreported in this isolated part of India into which the authorities or police allegedly fear to tread.

For now our jury is out as to whether or not we are looking at a trafficking problem as opposed to economic migration of families. We are assured by Impulse that unaccompanied children are trafficked there and that there are worse coal mines than those we visited. That is good enough to merit further research both in Meghalaya and in Nepal in the coming few months.

During our discussions with Hasina the issue of what constituted a "child" was raised. From Hasina's point of view the answer was simple; it is as per the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) which has been signed by all the countries in the world with the exception of the USA and Somalia (strange bedfellows) i.e. under 18 unless national law puts the age of majority at younger than this. That is fine in theory but in practice it is a different story altogether. For if that criterion were to be accepted we would most likely have to end child labour and remove thousands of "children" who are in their mid teens from the coal mines. This would be tricky if the teenagers were there, desperate to work to avoid starvation for themselves and their families with no alternative social support in Nepal. And if you were to extract these teenagers it would be not only traumatic and violent but also probably a total waste of resources as they'd be back at the mines within a week of being repatriated back to Nepal with all its economic woes.

It takes a brave person within the development sector to risk becoming a pariah by challenging the widely-accepted truths of CRC but, very sadly, to me there seems to be a huge gap between its provisions and the needs of the real, impoverished, world.