11/29/2023, 18.03
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Rat-hole miners, the real heroes who rescued 41 workers trapped in a tunnel in Uttarakhand

by Nirmala Carvalho

Workers trapped for 17 days in a Himalayan tunnel were brought to safety by a group of Dalits and tribals who specialise in digging for coal by hand in inhumane conditions. Officially outlawed, this practice is for too many people the only way to earn a few rupees at the risk of their lives.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Across India people are rejoicing today after 41 miners were rescued from the Silkyara Bend–Barkot tunnel in the state of Uttarakhand after being trapped for 17 days.

The successful operation is largely due to Dalits and tribals, the most marginalised workers in the country, often used in so-called rat-hole mining, a controversial method used to extract coal from the ground.

Their work proved to be essential in drilling through the last 60 metres that separated the workers stuck in the tunnel after a portion caved in.

Rat-hole mining is a primitive and officially banned method of coal mining that involves extracting coal from narrow, vertical pits through which miners descend to extract the black rock using ropes or bamboo ladders, without safety gear.

The coal is extracted manually with primitive tools such as pickaxes, shovels, and baskets. The tunnels are usually just large enough for only one miner to go down at a time. For this reason, women and children are also involved in rat-hole mining.

Experts say that this method is harmful to the environment and has been linked to soil erosion, deforestation, river acidification and alteration of local ecosystems, as well as being obviously very dangerous for those who practise it.

Despite all this, it is still done by Dalits and members of the poorest tribes in Jharkhand and neighbouring states like Bihar, and the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh.

These poor people cut through the rock looking for coal, risking their lives, sometimes dying of exhaustion, to earn the few rupees necessary to feed themselves and their families.

Faced with the failure of other methods, it took 12 experienced rat-hole miners to undertake the most delicate part of the rescue operation to bring out the 41 workers trapped by the collapse of the tunnel.

It is thanks to the courage of these people that everyone came out of this long ordeal safe and sound last night. But will they really be remembered tomorrow, when this form of shameful and legal exploitation starts again?

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