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Children in the pits

By Kathyayini Chamaraj

Children as young as 10 are working in mines in Bellary district of Karnataka, recent studies and public hearings report. It is the children of displaced and homeless families who are exploited most by the mining mafia

Children working at an iron ore crushing site in Bellary

While helicopters carrying mining barons hovered over Bellary in the state of Karnataka, 10-year-old Sapna (name changed) crouched on the ground smashing pieces of iron ore with a hammer. She filled the pieces into a metal basin and loaded it into a waiting lorry.

Sapna was rescued by an NGO and admitted to school. But she would wake up at night with nightmares of loading endless basins of ore into a lorry.

Sapna starts crying as she deposes before a jury at a recent public hearing in Bellary on the impact of mining on children. The hearing was conducted by CACL (Campaign Against Child Labour), Samata, and mm&p (Mines, Minerals and People). It was a post-recession hearing; indeed, the extent of child labour was worse during the boom in iron ore exports to China, just before the Olympics.

During this boom period, even as a video showing children breaking rocks, filling basins and loading lorries was being shown by activists before the then Commissioner for Public Instruction, Sanjiv Kumar, officials in Bellary were denying that children were being made to work in mines in the district. This state of denial continues.

Bellary is a microcosm of the dubious development model being followed across the country. Mining is what drives this so-called ‘development’. Prof T R Chandrashekar, (Development Studies, Hampi University) a jury member, pointed out that while Bellary was the fourth richest district in Karnataka, and the second fastest growing city in Karnataka after Bangalore, it was behind several other poorer districts in terms of human development -- literacy, health, access to drinking water, etc. 

A recent fact-finding study by Samata, CACL and mm&p in Bellary found that there was no anganwadi teacher in Vitthalpura village. There were flies on the children’s food, and food packets were dated. In Rakkasagi, the anganwadi in the scheduled caste colony was being run in the teacher’s house; it did not have its own building. The primary health centre in Rakkasagi did not have the means even to test haemoglobin levels despite a high rate of anaemia among women mine workers there. In Vitthalpura, a lake used by villagers for drinking and washing has turned red from the dust from crusher sites, causing all kinds of illnesses. Everywhere, mining has made the land unproductive.

No occupational health and safety measures are provided at the mining sites. In cases of emergency, workers have to go to the health centre some distance away. In Mullur village, workers do not trust the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (NREGS) as they did not receive their wages on time. The mining barons-cum-elected representatives hovering in their helicopters above Bellary literally have their heads in the clouds and are too high above the ground to notice the problems of the people below.

Children in the pits

A national study, ‘India’s Childhood in the Pits’, recently conducted in eight states jointly by HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, Samata, Mines, Minerals and People (mm&p) and Dhaatri Resource Centre for Women and Children, revealed the extent of the problem of children and mining. The report states that ‘research on mining and children has tended to focus solely on the aspect of child labour. The multitude of other ways in which children are impacted by mining have been completely neglected.’

The report finds that children are prone to illness because they live in mining areas and work in mines. While almost 50% of children in many states across the country are malnourished, children in mining areas are much more susceptible to malnutrition, hunger and food insecurity. Displaced, homeless or living in inadequate housing conditions, forced to drop out of schools, they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation and are recruited for a number of illegal activities, even trafficking, by the mafia. Children in mining are unable to access schools or are forced to drop out of school. Mining regions have large numbers of children engaged in related hazardous activities. 

Large-scale mining projects are mainly situated in adivasi areas. Adivasi and dalit children suffer the most. The mining sector is largely dependent on migrant populations where children have no security.

Children and their welfare are not the responsibility of the mining ministry; the problems they face as a result of mining have to be addressed by other departments like child welfare, education, tribal welfare, labour, environment, etc. The report finds that ‘without convergence between various departments and agencies, the mining child falls through the gaps’.

Laws and policies related to mining and other related processes do not address the specific rights and entitlements of children in mining.

The rights of children are being violated in three ways: (1) by non-implementation of existing laws; (2) due to loopholes in existing laws; and (3) due to the absence of laws.

If the Mines Act, 1952 and the Mines (Amendment) Act, 1983, which state that no person below 18 years of age shall be allowed to work in any mine or part thereof (Section 40) had been implemented strictly, the large-scale employment of child labour in Bellary’s mines would perhaps not be so rampant. And since many mine workers are migrants from other states, effective implementation of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen’s (ISMW) Act would have afforded mine workers and their children much better living conditions. 

The ISMW Act stipulates good housing of a certain minimum dimension, with a separate kitchen and verandah, impermeable floor, good ventilation through windows and doors, water supply, drainage and waste handling, etc. It also mandates a certain number of toilets and bathrooms, separately for men and women, for specified numbers of workers. It prescribes crèches with impermeable floors, weather-proof roofs and good ventilation for 0-6-year-old children, with a separate sleeping area equipped with cradles, beds, mattresses, feeding equipment, and a play area with toys.

The ISMW Act, however, does not apply to intra-state migrants who constitute a sizeable number at most mines. Also, it does not apply if workers have migrated of their own accord and are not accompanied by a maistry or agent.

As most mine workers are casual or contract workers, effective implementation of the Contract Labour Act would have provided them with several benefits including restrooms, canteens, crèches, toilets, drinking water, etc. 

Another failure of both pieces of legislation is that they say nothing about schooling for children aged between 6 and 14. The Right to Education Act too says nothing specific about how migrant children are to be educated.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 in mines (underground and underwater) and collieries (Schedule Part A). It also prohibits employment of children in certain mining-related processes listed in Schedule B.13. This is a huge gap in the law because it does not unilaterally ban the employment of children in all mining activities.

There are no laws either on mining of minor minerals, which is the domain of the states, not the Centre. Minor minerals comprise quarry stones, jelly and sand used in the construction industry. Children as young as 10 break quarry stones with small hammers that are specially made for them, weighing 10 kg, while adults are given hammers weighing 20 kg. The Karnataka Minor Minerals Concession Rules are all about mining; it says nothing about the personnel employed in these mines. Efforts by M Madan Gopal, Director of Mines and Geology, Karnataka, in the 1990s, to frame rules regarding the work and service conditions of minor-minerals mine workers were stalled when he was transferred prematurely for having caught lorries transporting illegally quarried granite. This lacuna in the laws is yet to be filled.

The national report, ‘India’s Childhood in the Pits’ notes that the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy of 2007 neglects to mention children as affected persons and therefore fails to recognise or acknowledge the ways in which children are specifically impacted by displacement for any project including mining. No mention is made in this policy of the effect this displacement will have on their access to food, education and healthcare, as well as their overall development.

The oft-made statement that ‘Children are the future of the nation’ has no meaning when these children’s future itself is being nipped in the bud.  How can a nation which destroys the future of its children have a future at all?  In Bellary at least, the dreams of the rich, roaming around in helicopters with their head in the clouds, are turning into nightmares for the poor children.  

 (Kathyayini Chamaraj is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore who has been writing for over 24 years on development issues for Deccan Herald, The Hindu, India Together, etc. She is also Executive Trustee of CIVIC, Bangalore) 

Infochange News & Features, March 2011