Shillong: Twenty-one-year-old Sayeb Ali from Assam doesn't have a lot to do these days. He wakes up late in the mornings, visits the paddy field where his brother Kasem grows rice, and sits in a corner, watching him staking and hauling the crop, as the harvesting season has started. Otherwise, he can be found regaling other residents of Panbari in Chirang district with his incredible survival story. Sayeb, after all, is the lone survivor among the 15 miners trapped in Ksan coal mine of Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills since 13 December, even as the fate of the others continues to remain uncertain.
On Wednesday, victims' families were handed compensation cheques.
Sayeb Ali, who survived the mine trageedy in Meghalaya. Image courtesy Syeda Ambia Zahan/101Reporters
Survivor recalls tragedy
A prime witness in the case, Sayeb, who managed to haul himself up with the help of an iron chain hanging inside, thanks God for choosing to save him from the 320-feet water-filled rathole mine but his brow is furrowed with worry thinking about the future.
"My family won't allow me to go back to coal mining but I have nothing much to do in the village either. Perhaps, I will move to town and try to get some work at a construction site. The money, however, won't be as good as earlier," he says, sitting on a bench in the courtyard of the house of Moinul Islam, a fellow miner who wasn't as lucky as him.
Sayeb keeps his phone off these days, as suggested by his fellow villagers. "The Khliehriat police (under whose jurisdiction the incident site falls) call me up at times. They want to record my statement, but my neighbours have warned me that if I go there the cops will lock me up for illegal mining. I am not scared though. Someday, I will go to the police and tell them everything I know," he says.
A bloody history
At a distance of 55 km from the district headquarters of Chirang, Panbari is a village panchayat located in Borobazar block and is infamous for militant activities, extrajudicial killings by security forces, custodial deaths and wood smuggling. This is the place from where three men " identified as Amir, Saher and Moinul " in their 20s and early 30s left for mining coal in Ksan in the East Jaintia Hills and never returned.
"One in every three men, aged between 15 and 50, is engaged either in wood business or coal mining. We know it's illegal, but what to do? We have to survive somehow," says Shah Alom Shaikh, headman of Bogidara No.1 village in Panbari.
Panbari has a mix of Bodo tribe people and Bengali speaking Muslims. Militants from the National Democratic Front of Bodoland demanding money from villagers is a common sight here. The extremist outfit has been fighting for a separate state out of Assam comprising Chirang and three other neighbouring districts and is notorious for engaging in murder and extortion.
"The last incident of killing in Panbari by the militants was reported in 2014. Iman Ali from Bogidara village was killed for failing to pay up," recalls Nurkamal Shaikh, 45, a villager who is a former coal mine manager. "Iman was into the wood business. The militants knew he had money."
Nurkamal, who used to work in a mine adjacent to Ksan coal mine, is Amir and Saher's uncle. "Panbari doesn't have many employment opportunities. Some villagers are into rice and jute cultivation, some into the wood business, while others sell vegetables. Till the early 2000s, the boys used to work in stone-crushing facilities in Delhi and Haryana. But most came back after contracting tuberculosis," he says.
'Risk of getting caught doing illegal mining is less'
However, no one in Panbari wants to elaborate on the wood business. The abundance of trees in the foothills of Bhutan Hills has led well-armed timber mafias from the region to join hands with corrupt law enforcement officers to illegally log and smuggle timber across the northeastern states.
"The wood 'business' is facing losses thanks to alertness from the Bhutan side. Bringing the wood down to the villages where the timber mills are, too, is risky. Hence the attraction for coal mining, as the risk of getting caught is less. It makes our boys more willing to go to Meghalaya. Just four months of hard work helps them to earn enough to run their households for a year," says Abdul Miya, 60, Saher's father.
Families torn apart
At least 40 people from Panbari, excluding the three trapped youths, are still working in various coal mines of East Jaintia Hills, despite the tragedy, rues Shah Alom Shaikh.
Saher's wife Sajeda Khatun, 23, says, "The last I spoke to him was two days before the accident. He wanted to wrap up work soon to return home for the New Year... I hope I can at least get his body back to perform janaazaah (Islamic burial)." Sajeda, who only studied till Class 5 and married Saher when she was 14, must now single-handedly bring up the couple's three children.
Abdul Miya feels that the Meghalaya government should raise the compensation to Rs 5 lakh from Rs 1 lakh, as the "boys" were their families' breadwinners. "Why would the boys engage in a life-threatening illegal activity? Because the Assam government failed to provide sufficient employment opportunities. Hence, it's the state's responsibility now to undertake an initiative to at least properly rehabilitate victims' families," he adds.
A newbie miner can earn Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 a day, while an experienced one can make up to Rs 4,000. A daily wage labourer in Assam, on the other hand, can only make Rs 300-400 daily.
"It's apparent that mining offers good money. It starts from September and ends by February or March, as there is no rain in this period," explains Nurkamal, who has decided never to go back to it after losing his nephews.
Nurkamal, however, doesn't know the name of the owner of the mine he used to supervise, only that the owner had contested in the 2017 Assembly election in Meghalaya. "It is an unwritten rule not to ask the mine owner's name; miners only know their Sardar's name. And even if we do know the name, we are not supposed to reveal it to others, as we all know what we are doing is illegal and it can land us in trouble," he says.
Azad Zaman, the Congress legislator of Rajabala constituency in West Garo Hills, the hometown of seven of the trapped miners, says, "It is an open secret in Meghalaya that the coal mines are owned by politicians. But they take it in another person's name. Till the mining continues, labourers from Assam will keep flocking there."
The author is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com.