Ground Report: For Meghalaya Mine Workers, Even Death is No Escape From Debts

In Meghalaya and Assam, as mine workers die in subhuman working conditions, their families enter arduous struggles to secure their promised compensation.

Lumthari, Meghalaya

Jostina Dkhar has not gone to work on the paddy fields for the last eight months. Not since she lost her sons, Melambok (22) and Dimonmei (20) at the mouth of the Ksan mine barely two kilometres from her village.

Jostina had raised four children single handedly since her husband walked out on her. The loss of two of them has since felt like the hole in her heart would forever remain gaping.

“My sons had dropped out of school a couple of years ago and started helping me in the fields,” she said.

“It is just me and my daughters now. We can’t go out and work,” she added. The girls, 12 and 10, stood by her side.

Located in the interiors of the East Jaintia Hills, the humdrum lives of those that lived in Lumthari village was suddenly disrupted eight months ago, on December 13, when a sudden gust of water from the nearby rivers, inundated an illegally operating ‘rat hole’ mine, killing at least 16 miners. These particular types of mines had been banned from operation by a National Green Tribunal order in 2014 for violating environmental norms.

A high profile joint ‘rescue’ operation followed, carried out by the Navy, Army and National Disaster Response Force.

Among the 16 who died, three were local Jaintias, seven came from West Garo hills district, five from Assam and one from Nepal.

Against the certainty of death, getting the mortal remains of her sons more than two months after the incident was all that Jostina had prayed day and night for. Eventually, the remains of only two miners were pulled 200 feet up from the rat hole mine in January and February, after which the teams failed to retrieve any more bodies, although two others were detected.

Also read: Rat-Hole Mining Rampant in Meghalaya Despite NGT Ban

Despite the heavily decomposed state of the body, Jostina identified her younger son from the clothes he wore to work that day. “Most of the flesh and hair was gone. It was just bones left and the t-shirt and trousers on him,” she said.

Her next-door neighbour, Alek Dkhar, prayed day and night that his younger brother, Shalabash Dkhar’s body would also be retrieved. A collage of the three young men is the cover photo on his Facebook profile – a digital memorial in the absence of graves. “All three started working at Ksan on the same day on December 10. They would have been paid by the end of that week,” Alek said.

Jostina Dkhar and her daughters. Photo: Prakash Bhuyan

When I visited the region, six months after the tragedy, this tiny hobbit like village in the countryside beyond the coal mining town of Khliehriat had already seen the frenzy of visits from national media, a Delhi lawyer fighting for the bodies to be retrieved, the District Commissioner and a former MLA. But those were over and Jostina had nothing more to say.

The interim relief from the state government (Rs one lakh) and the ex-gratia from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund (Rs two lakhs) is what she and her daughters have been surviving on since they stopped going to work in the paddy fields. Like all the other families, she awaits the full promised ex-gratia from the state government, in addition to a job.

“There are no men left in my family. I’ve lost both my breadwinners,” said the woman, who still hopes to bury whatever remains of her other son and thus has agreed to let the rescue operation go on under the supervision of the Supreme Court. In May, six other families also agreed to the same.

Magurmari, Meghalaya

More than 400 kilometres away, in Magurmari village of the West Garo Hills, 35-year-old Abdul Kalam Sheikh’s family has been surviving on a Rs three lakh compensation for the last eight months.

Monirul Islam was the third generation in his family to go and work in the mines after his father, Solibar Rehman, and his elder brother. Photo: Prakash Bhuyan

“This will only last us so long,” Abdul Karim Sheikh, his older brother, said over the phone. Karim and his brother used to work together in the mines until an accident in 2012 left him disabled.

In December last year, Kalam, along with four labourers – Majid Sheikh (30), Umar Ali (28), Sirafat Ali (25) and Rajiul Islam (20) – from Magurmari were lost in the mine.

So did two others – Monirul Islam (35) and Mizanur Rahman (28) – from the nearby Farshakandi village in the same district.

None of the families from the district wanted the operations to continue. “Having visited the mine, we saw no point in recovering bodies that we’ll barely be able to identify. We were in more desperate need of proper relief,” said Karim.

Compensation aside, Karim hopes a government job for either of his two sisters, who have Bachelors degrees, would support the family in the long run. Their elected representative, Rajbala MLA Azad Zaman, who helped them receive the first compensation, has been pitching for proper ex-gratia relief for all the families.

Monirul’s family says that labour work in Panbari village of Chirang district in Assam only pays about Rs 300-400 rupees per day, as opposed to the coal mining areas where you can earn up to Rs 3000 per day. Photo: Prakash Bhuyan

“Since March itself, I have appealed to the government in the assembly that the families must receive an additional Rs 20-25 lakhs as ex-gratia,” Zaman told The Wire. However, the state government of Meghalaya is yet to officially respond on this matter.

Panbari, Assam

Hope finally arrived after the Supreme Court on July 12 accepted the state government’s prayers to close the operation. But when I met the families of Shahir Islam (30), Amir Hussain (29) and Monirul Islam (17) in Chirang district of Assam a week after this order, the suspension of operations seemed to make little difference to their lives.

Hussain’s corpse was the first to emerge out of the mine in mid-January. He was the only one to have received a proper burial.

Islam and Hussain’s families said that they have been struggling with finances since the death of the men. They accused a local, one Nur Kalam, of taking a sizeable commission from their interim relief for ‘collecting and submitting their documents to receive the money’.

“He took Rs 75,000 out of the Rs three lakh compensation we received, in addition to his expenses that we covered for the three times that he travelled to Meghalaya,” Hussain’s brother-in-law Taijuddin Ahmed said. The families trusted Nur Kalam with the task as he was familiar with the area, had worked in mines himself and knew which doors to knock.

When The Wire spoke to Nur Kalam, he said that he neither took any commission from their compensation nor did he ever promise to file a case in the Meghalaya high court. “I have spent Rs 1,30,000 going to Khlieriat at least five times to do their work. Who is supposed to pay for that?” he asked.

“I have only taken Rs 40,000 for my expenses from each of the families, only after they agreed to cover it before I left,” he said.

Also read: Trapped Meghalaya Miners Are the Latest Victims of Years of Labour Exploitation

Expenses aside, the two families say that a major chunk of the compensation amount was spent paying off the loans taken by the deceased. Shahir had debts of almost Rs three lakh from loans he took when he suffered losses from small businesses, his father Abdul Miya said. “This drove him to go work in the mines for a month or two, just long enough to pay off his debts.”

The family has kept aside Rs 72,000 for his three daughters.

Since Shahir’s body could not be retrieved, the East Jaintia administration has refused to issue a death certificate to his family until they are declared dead. “But to cancel his bank loan, we need to submit his death certificate,” said Shahir’s wife, Shazda Khatoon. Only Amir Hussain’s family was able to obtain this certificate since his body was the first to be retrieved from the mine in January.

Frederick Dopth, the District Commissioner of East Khasi Hills, told The Wire in August that since the bodies are technically ‘missing’, they have to follow the legal procedure to declare them dead. “I am currently away on training to South Korea and will look into what can be done once I’m back in one and a half month’s time,” he said.

Shahir had debts over almost 3 lakhs that he took when he suffered losses from small businesses. His father, Abdul Miya said, “This drove him to go work in the mines for a month or tow, just long enough to pay off his debts”. Photo: Prakash Bhuyan

New Delhi

Aditya N Prasad, an advocate practicing in New Delhi, told The Wire that compensation was never a part of their prayer in the writ petition he filed on January 3 soon after the incident.

He pointed to an order passed by the Justice A.K. Sikri bench on February 25, where it was said, “The court shall consider granting compensation to the kith and kin of the persons who lost their lives in the incident”. For this purpose, a show cause notice was issued to respondent 7, identified as Jrin Chullet (the owner of Ksan mine) in the order on February 8. Chullet did not appear before the court nor was his absence noted in the 12 July hearing.

Prasad said that since most of the families (barring those in the Garo hills) said they wanted the bodies to be retrieved, he had petitioned for the operation to continue. “Not only that, it was very clear from the government’s own reports and the experts on the ground that the bodies could be retrieved and the means and equipment to do that was at hand,” he said.

“I still feel that we should go on.”

The state of Meghalaya filed an affidavit on May 6, where they submitted that although the families wanted the bodies to perform the last rites, they “had accepted the fact that retrieving the bodies now after passing of such a long time from inside of that mine is far from a distant possibility”. Further, they mentioned that the families of the seven miners, through a representation, had expressed hopelessness in retrieving the bodies and asked for compensation.

Yet, the affidavit did not make any mention of compensation beyond the interim relief and the ex-gratia that had already been paid.

In fact, even the 15 miners who perished in the accident in the Nongalbibra district of South Garo hills on July 6, 2012 have not been compensated so far despite a public interest litigation filed in Guwahati high court. In the same year, the matter was directed to the National Green Tribunal, which helped in building a case to eventually ban ‘rat hole’ mining in 2014.

Alek Dkhar prayed day and night that his younger brother, Shalabash Dkhar’s body would get pulled out. He had worked in a limestone mine and briefly worked in a coal mine but left it shortly after he found the work too dangerous. Photo: Prakash Bhuyan

Justice (retired) B.P. Katakey, who heads the NGT committee formed to assess the impact of coal mining in Meghalaya post the ban, said that they had placed advertisements in local papers for those who died or were injured in mining accidents. “Only 11 families have come forward so far but their claims are yet to be verified by the Deputy Commissioner,” Katakey told The Wire.

“It also doesn’t help that none of the miners had maintained any records of labourers that they had hired to work in the mines.”

East Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya

Although the operation has been called off, the case has been kept open for submission of a standard operation procedure for any such disasters in the future. The Meghalaya State Disaster Management Authority is currently working on guidelines for mining accidents. Even the National Disaster Management Authority does not have explicit guidelines on mining related accidents with a minor exception in the Incidence Response System, which covers ‘mine disasters’.

While there are no official figures on the number of deaths or casualties thus far, activists say they easily run up to hundreds. In their investigations, Shillong based Impulse Network found that since none of the labour laws were enforced in the mines before the NGT ban, there was no system of compensation or insurance for death or injury to the miners. Mine owners would often not even report the deaths to the authorities and often the families don’t even get to know about untimely deaths since mine managers don’t keep a record of their family details.

Afizur Rehman, who worked in the mining areas of East Jaintia Hills for 13 years until 2015, said there was no standard or a fixed amount of compensation paid to the miners. “The sardar (mine manager) would pay someone Rs 5,000, someone else Rs 20,000 and some others may not even get anything,” he said. “It was mostly us who would contribute from our own pockets to either pay the bereaved wife of a mine worker or cover expenses to send his body home.”

Rehman went back to working on someone else’s farmland in Panbari after, he said, the labour costs in the mines drastically dropped after the ban.

Also read: In Photos: As Activist Recovers from Attack, Illegal Coal Mining Continues in Meghalaya

Back in Magurmari, Karim said that despite deadly accidents like in Ksan, locals from his village still go to the mines to work. “We still have about 30-35 people working in mines over there. Some of them are even younger than 18. I myself had seen 10-12 year old kids working in the mines back in 2012,” he said.

Hearing six civil appeals challenging the NGT ban, the Supreme Court on July 3 upheld tribal ownership over resources and land in Meghalaya, which enjoys constitutional safeguards under the ‘sixth schedule’. It said, “The operation of a mine will be allowed subject to environmental clearance, obtaining a mining lease under the Minerals (concession) Rules, 1960 and the Mines Act, 1960 as well as regulations laid under the Coal Mines Regulations, 2017.”

The Mines Act and 2017 regulations, also applicable prior to the 2014 ban, cover the management of mines, including working conditions for mineworkers. However, the government has called this judgment as ‘lifting the ban’ even though ‘rat hole’ mining remains illegal.

Monirul Islam, the youngest of the mine workers in Ksan, would have turned 18 on May 5 this year. He’s the third generation in his family to go and work in the mines after his father, Solibar Rehman, and his elder brother. Although labour work in Panbari may not pay half as much as what they earn in the mines, Rehman says that he no longer advises anyone from his village to work in the mines.

“I tell my relatives that better they go to Guwahati or Arunachal to look for work. But never to the mines again.”