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For migrant workers in Meghalaya’s mines, life is worth nothing

Abdul Sukkur went to work on his day-off for extra money & never came back

Shillong, June 5: What would be the cost of human life? For those like Abdul Sukkur, it would be nothing. So, when they drown inside a rat-hole coal mine away from home, they would be the last on the priority list of any government.

Sukkur is among the five migrant workers from Assam who are feared dead inside a coal mine at Sutnga in East Jaintia Hills. He was only 26, the same age as Anowarul Islam Barbhuiya (also read, https://meghalayamonitor.com/index.php/2021/05/31/relatives-wait-for-body-of-miner/), another worker trapped inside the mine.

Sukkur was promised Rs 1,000 a day for getting into the death hole. In a month, he would have earned Rs 30,000, more than double the payment he would get in Bengaluru where he worked before the pandemic. Now, his family of five — wife Rahena Begum, three minor children (a boy and two girls), the youngest one aged one year, and an old mother — is left in the lurch after the bread earner got trapped inside the coal pit.

Talking to Meghalaya Monitor on phone from Bortol Pingorgool village in Badarpur assembly constituency (Karimganj), Sukkur’s elder brother Muslimuddin (28) said he has been struggling to get permission to visit the accident site but “the police and the administration are not allowing because of the Covid-19 situation”.

“We are very poor. My brother went there to work in the mine. Earlier too, he had worked in Meghalaya mines and he knew about the dangers. Now that he is buried inside the pit, what is left for us? Are we even going to get the body? Is there any point to even visit Meghalaya? We are devastated,” said Muslimuddin, who is also a daily wage earner and lives in the village with his family. He choked as he spoke about the ordeal that the family is facing.

Sordar’s brother missing with worker’s Aadhaar

When the reporter asked him to provide ID proof of Sukkur so that there is a chance of government help for the family, Muslimuddin informed that his brother’s Aadhaar and other documents are with Sordar Nizamuddin Ali’s brother Jamaluddin, locally known by the name Jamu, who is from the same village. “He is not even giving the documents back. We tried to contact him but his phone was switched off. I am sure it will be so tomorrow and the day after too,” said an exasperated Muslimuddin.

Jamaluddin was contacted several times but his phone was switched off. Both Nizamuddin and Jamaluddin are absconding.

Abdul Sukkur

Sukkur came to Meghalaya along with five others from his village. The others have returned home, Muslimuddin informed. Sukkur was not supposed to go into the mine on Sunday when the incident happened but he was promised extra money, said Mansur Al Hira, a member of local NGO Parivartan who visited the family on Thursday.

According to Mansur, seven persons from his and neighbouring villages went to work in the coal mine. “Sukkur lost job during last lockdown and he took up whatever job came his way,” the activist said.

In Chief Minister Conrad Sangma’s words, the mine was abandoned for quite some time. That is another story how work began in an abandoned mine when the MDA government has time and again denied that illegal coal mining is still continuing in the state. This is the second mine accident in the same district in four months.

The rescue operations are being delayed because of “inclement weather and manpower shortage owing to the prevailing lockdown situation”, according to the authorities.

But activists in Assam are questioning the lackadaisical attitude of the state governments and the “excuses” given in the pretext of the lockdown. “How can lockdown be an obstacle in such an emergency rescue issue,” said Karimul Bari, a Silchar-based activist.

NHRC petition

Bari has already petitioned the National Human Rights Commission, a copy of which is with Meghalaya Monitor. “I am here to draw your attention regarding the tragedy happened in East Jaiantia Hills in Meghalaya where 5/7 poor labours trapped since 6 days (sic). One among is my neighbor namely Anwarul Islam Barbhuiya (26), from Katigorah Cachar, Assam. Sir, it is 6th day of the incident but the families are not getting any positive results. They also being denied to visit the incident spot. The administration took some steps but these are not sufficient to recover our person,” the letter to NHRC read.

Yeahya Hussain, uncle of Anowarul, told this reporter on phone that he and his relatives are also trying to visit the accident site but have been denied permission.

“The rescue team operating with a very slow and not seriously and if it continues in this way then the operation will be ended soon and even the dead bodies will not recover as we believe (sic),” it added.

NHRC has already received the complaint and registered the matter.

Mansur said about 80 labourers work in the mine every day but on the fateful day, only 14 went into the pit. “All of them knew about the accident earlier this year where six workers died. But hunger prompted them to take the risk,” he added.

Parivartan members have been working in the villages of the constituency for years now. Mansur said 30% of the villagers in the area are migrant workers. “These people have no idea about their rights. Even after this accident, the families are not getting any help from the police or the government. Probably, they would not even get the bodies… we heard that the coal sordar (Nizamuddin) has threatened the families and asked them not to pursue the case, and if they dare to do that, the bodies won’t come back. He apparently promised to give Rs 1 lakh,” the activist informed.

MLA to petition Assam CM

When contacted on phone, MLA of Katigorah constituency Khalil Uddin Mazumder said the local administration and police are working towards it but “I have not received any report so far”.

“We are requesting everyone, including the media, to expedite the rescue work but the Covid-19 situation is slowing down work. I visited the families. Please you also help us in this. I am thinking of submitting a memorandum tomorrow (on Sunday) to our chief minister (Himanta Biswa Sarma),” said the MLA.

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