On all fours in ‘rat holes’, the heroes of Silkyara scrape by on the margins

Rat-hole mining is banned in India as a dangerous practice; showered by praise, a 12-member team of rat-hole miners ask for human dignity, a house, a road, fair wages, and an assurance that such a collapse will never be repeated

November 29, 2023 09:36 pm | Updated November 30, 2023 12:22 pm IST - SILKYARA

Rat-hole miners who successfully rescued the 41 workers pose for a photograph near the tunnel on November 28, 2023.

Rat-hole miners who successfully rescued the 41 workers pose for a photograph near the tunnel on November 28, 2023. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

He may have only studied till Class 7, but it is 35-year-old Mohammed Rashid who best sums up the high-profile rescue of 41 low-wage contract workers trapped for over 400 hours in the collapsed Silkyara tunnel— a rescue completed not by imported machines, but by rat-hole miners like him, experts in a banned practice.

Isme mazdoor bhaiyon ko unke mazdooro bhaiyon ne nikaala (The labourers were rescued by their brother labourers),” says the resident of Baghpat in western Uttar Pradesh, who worked for six hours inside the narrow pipe drilled 60 metres deep into the tunnel’s debris. Never before in his life has he got so much praise for doing his job, he says.

Over a 26-hour period, the team of 12 rat-hole miners, mostly hailing from U.P.’s Dalit and Muslim communities, manually bored through the last 18 metres of debris, working within an 800 mm pipe and using their chisels, shovels and gas cutters to remove the iron girders and hard rocks that had defeated the imported drilling machines. They used a small trolley to push the extracted soil out of the tunnel, tying wet towels over their noses to cope with breathlessness from the clouds of dust within the narrow pipe.

Simple wishlist

The group did not want to take a single paisa for their work at the Silkyara site, but Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami declared that each of the rat-hole miners would be paid ₹50,000. When the heroes of the hour are asked what they want, their wishes are both simple and profound: a pucca house for an elderly mother, village roads, love and human dignity that crosses religious and caste lines, life insurance and fair wages for all workers, and an assurance that such a collapse is not allowed to happen again

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Insaan ko insaan samjhe aur desh mein mohabbat bani rahe, bus itni si khwaish hai (I just wish that every human being should be treated as a human being and love should remain in the country),” says 45-year-old Mohammed Irshad, when asked what is his wish from a grateful nation celebrating the successful rescue.

His wife Shabana cried when he told her that he was going to Silkyara, he says. A rat-hole miner since 2001, the Meerut native moved to Delhi a few years ago to work with private tunnelling firms; he has not yet been able to build a house of his own, as he wants his children to study and get decent jobs which will not require them to risk their lives as he does.

Dangerous and banned

Rat-hole mining is banned in India, as an unscientific and dangerous occupation, but is still practised as the only livelihood option in areas with thin coal seams, predominantly in Meghalaya; the coal is extracted by digging small pits, three to four feet wide, which are entered by the workers, often children. These skills were, however, invaluable at Silkyara.

Munna Qureshi, 33, was the first of the miners to push past the last layer of debris and see the 41 workers standing on the other side, tears rolling down their cheeks.

“Whenever I felt tired, I recalled the words of my 10-year old son Faiz, who told me that I should come back only after getting them out,” says the father of three, who did not take any calls from his family during the 26-hour-long operation, not wanting to lose focus. His small field only grows enough wheat to feed his family, and he has never gone to school, so he has been engaged in this risky profession for the last 15 years.

‘We can avoid such incidents’

Kasganj native Firoz Qureshi, who earns just ₹500 to ₹800 per day to support his family, including his wife, three children and parents, says he was “blessed” by the opportunity to participate in the rescue. His sole request to the government is to ensure that the tunnel collapse at Silkyara is never repeated anywhere. “I will come again whenever my brothers need me, but we can avoid incidents like these. We should,” he emphasises.

As the leader of the 12-member team, 45-year-old Vakeel Hassan was responsible for motivating his men whenever they despaired, determined that they would not go back till the workers were rescued. “Itni khushi to Eid me nahi hui jitni inko nikaal kar hui (Even at Eid, I was never so happy as I was after rescuing my brothers),” he says, recalling the struggle of the last two metres of debris, filled with iron.

A house for Ma

Jatin Kashyap, 24, and his brother Saurabh, 21, are the youngest in the team, and started rat-hole mining when they were just 13 or 14 years old. They joined the rescue operation, coming from their Bulandshahr village, where they had gone to celebrate Deepavali with their mother Poonam who lives in a kaccha house. “Can we get a pucca house under the PM Awas Yojana (Central housing scheme),” asks Saurabh, as he gets a slap on the back from his elder brother for asking a favour from the government.

Ankur, 25, a Dalit from Bulandshahr, is taking a simple souvenir from Silkyara to show his mother: the chocolates and dry fruits gifted by the trapped workers as they came out and hugged him. His request to the government is to ensure that all labourers in India get decent wages and life insurance.

Monu Kumar, 29, had a specific request for U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. “Gaon bekar pada hai humara, sarkar road bana de to accha hoga (My village is in bad condition, it will be good if the government can build a road there),” says the Dalit rat-hole miner from Akhtiyarpur village in Bulandshahr.

‘Treat me as a human’

Devendra, 40, who also hails from the Dalit community in Bulandshahr says that his wife Lalita wanted to stop him from coming to Silkyara, but he was motivated by the image of the trapped workers speaking through a pipe, which went viral on social media. “It felt like they were calling me,” he says. Before heading home, he plans to buy some woollen clothes for his children from Uttarkashi.

Nasir Ahmed, 32, says that he has no wishes or expectations from anyone and participated in the rescue operation as it was about his mazdoor bhai (labourer brothers). His father, a farmer, wants him to come home to Kasganj before heading for another operation. All he wants is for people to treat him as a human, if not a hero.

Mohammed Naseem, 35, from Muzaffarnagar just keeps smiling when media personnel, with mikes in their hands, surround him asking about his emotions. He says that his brothers, mostly engaged in farming, called to tell him that they had made kheer (pudding) to celebrate when they heard the news that the rescue had been completed.

“I am not a politician who talks well. I just did my job,” he says.

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