KHLIEHRIAT, India — After descending 70 feet on a wobbly bamboo staircase into a dank pit, the teenage miners ducked into a black hole about two feet high and crawled 100 yards through mud before starting their day digging coal.
They wore T-shirts, pajama-like pants and short rubber boots — not a hard hat or steel-toed boot in sight. They tied rags on their heads to hold small flashlights and stuffed their ears with cloth. And they spent the whole day staring death in the face.
Just two months before full implementation of a landmark 2010 law mandating that all Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14 be in school, some 28 million are working instead, according to Unicef. Child workers can be found everywhere — in shops, in kitchens, on farms, in factories and on construction sites. In the coming days Parliament may consider yet another law to ban child labor, but even activists say more laws, while welcome, may do little to solve one of India’s most intractable problems.
“We have very good laws in this country,” said Vandhana Kandhari, a child protection specialist at Unicef. “It’s our implementation that’s the problem.”
Poverty, corruption, decrepit schools and absentee teachers are among the causes, and there is no better illustration of the problem than the Dickensian “rathole” mines here in the state of Meghalaya.
Meghalaya lies in India’s isolated northeast, a stump of land squashed between China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Its people are largely tribal and Christian, and they have languages, food and facial features that seem as much Chinese as Indian.
Suresh Thapa, 17, said that he has worked in the mines near his family’s shack “since he was a kid,” and that he expects his four younger brothers to follow suit. He and his family live in a tiny tarp-and-stick shack near the mines. They have no running water, toilet or indoor heating.
On a recent day, Suresh was sitting outside his home sharpening his and his father’s pickaxes — something he must do twice a day. His mother, Mina Thapa, sat nearby nursing an infant and said Suresh chose mining himself.
“He works of his own free will,” she said. “He doesn’t listen to me anyway, even when I tell him something,” she added with a bittersweet laugh.
Ms. Thapa said that three of her younger sons go to a nearby government school and that they would go into the mines when they wanted to.
“If they don’t do this work, what other jobs are they going to get?” she asked.
India’s Mines Act of 1952 prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from working in coal mines, but Ms. Thapa said enforcing that law would hurt her family. “It’s necessary for us that they work. No one is going to give us money. We have to work and feed ourselves.”
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