Javir Kumar, 14, works in illegal coal mines, each a “rat hole,” 10x10 foot and 400 foot deep, where a mere slip of the foot will plunge one to a certain death.

A large number of children aged below 14 are working in such mines, built unscientifically, in Jharkhand's Hazaribagh district. These mine workers are mostly from Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Assam.

The way coal is mined is scary and complicated, as Javir Kumar explains: iron rods are heated and then sharpened for digging. Every five minutes, a wooden bucket brimming with coal is heaved out of a burrow. The coal is dumped on the side of the quarry before being loaded on to the waiting truck. Every day, a child mines 30-40 buckets.

These mines are increasing in numbers, manned mostly by children ranging in age from 7 to 17. The Mines Act, 1952, stipulates that anyone aged below 18 cannot be employed in mines; the labour law fixes the permissible age for employment at 14.

These labourers start work at 5 in the morning; by the time they come out of the mine, it is dark. Then they drink and gamble.

The kin of those who die in accidents in these mines never get any compensation as the deaths are never recorded, claims Chota Majhi.

“It's really dark inside. When I was there for the first time, I was scared, fearing whether I could ever come to the surface,” recalls Phul Kumari. “Everyone uses an oil lamp to pick their way in the mines.”

What with the frequent exposure to dust and coal particles, these children suffer from respiratory problems. The primary health centre is out of reach.

Also, there is no clean water to drink. A single hand-pump serves a population of 600. Water scarcity forces the people to use water the mines are filled with.

Frequent fatalities

Death plays hide and seek here, says Basanti Devi, a resident: there are frequent deaths in incidents of mine cave-in, as the gaps are not properly filled after coal is extracted.

“The police have never investigated any death.”

Why are their children not in school? Pat comes the answer: “Poverty.”

As the rate of child labour is high, juvenile crime is also rampant.

The Jharkhand government has not given these workers any benefit under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

“The MGNREGA is meant for the rich, not for the poor like us. We have gone to government officials for work so many times. They told us that the scheme was yet to reach these parts,” some of them say.

Sexual harassment

Worst of all, adolescent girls face “sexual harassment.” Pradeep Singh, a medical practitioner, told The Hindu that the pills for termination of pregnancy was being used in large numbers. Many abortions are done in nursing homes, but they hardly come to government notice because these hospitals are not registered.

A mere look at their homes — if at all they can be called homes — shows that life for these people are only temporary. These units are made of plastic materials and straws, so fragile that a strong wind can tear them away.

The State government is aware of the plight of these children, but it is yet to ensure their rights.

“We are aware of the situation. We can't deny the accusations. The government is planning to provide these children with basic education and healthcare facilities,” says Director-General of Police N.V. Rath.