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‘Rat-hole’ mines in India turn death traps for migrant workers | News

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Magurmari, Meghalaya – The only tangible mementoes that Shefali Begum, 18, and Nafisa Begum*, 16, have of their husbands are the ‘salwar kameez’ (common dress in South Asia) the two brothers had brought for them shortly before heading off to work in an illegal coal mine in northeastern India.

Now, the two women fear they may never see their husbands again.

The brothers Omor Ali, 26, and Shirapat Ali, 25, left their village Magurmari in West Garo Hills of Meghalaya in the first week of December to work at a mine in Ksan on the other side of the state in East Jaintia Hills.

Days later, on December 13, Shefali and Nafisa were told their husbands were among the 15 men trapped in the illegal mine at Ksan when floodwater from a nearby river poured into it.

Twenty days later and despite a rescue operation involving scores of emergency workers and Indian Navy divers, there has been no news of the men, nor any sign of their bodies.

At least seven men from Magurmari are trapped in the “rat-hole” mine. For the impoverished village, these “rat-hole” mines have become death traps. The Ksan “rat-hole” mine – named because men dig through narrow crevices to extract coal – is nearly 113 metres deep.

Workers from India’s National Disaster Response Force have been trying to pump out the flood water, but to no avail, according to Santosh Kumar Singh, assistant commander at the rescue force.

On December 31, a Navy diver reached the bottom of the mine, but found only coal at the mouth of one lateral hole.

“Rat-hole” mining was banned in 2014 by India’s National Green Tribunal following a petition that said the acidic discharge from the coal mines was polluting the Kopili River downstream.

Mine owners in Meghalaya, which has an estimated 576 million metric tonnes of coal reserves, have challenged the ban in the Supreme Court. The Meghalaya government has also sought a way around the ban, claiming to be losing an annual revenue of Rs 700 crore because of it.

The Ksan incident, however, has brought to the fore how entrenched the practice remains in the hilly state. Most of those employed in “rat-hole” mines are men and teenagers from villages such as Magurmari.





With both her sons, Omor Ali and Shirapat Ali, trapped in the mine, Omela Bibi (left) says there is no man left in the household [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]

Death traps 

Most of the 400 families in Magurmari do not own any agricultural land, forcing the men to find work in coal mines, according to Altaf Hussein, uncle to the Ali brothers.

The pair would work at a mine for two-three months and return home for 10 days. According to Hussein, they were paid Rs 30,000 ($430) every month, more than three times the money they would make working as masons in Magurmari.

Omela Bibi, the mother to Omor and Shirapat, was quiet, and her sunken eyes were fixed to the ground. “I would never let them go for such work had I known what gruelling work they undertake,” the 48-year-old said. 

The older Ali brother is the father to a seven year-old-daughter and two sons, aged four and two. 

His wife Shefali was dealt a double blow on the day the men got trapped – her 18-year-old brother Raziul Islam was also among the 15 trapped miners.

Islam, a bright student who only graduated from high school last year, went to work in the mines in order to buy an autorickshaw. His father, Sohor Ali, is despondent.

“I could not afford the autorickshaw. I told him we would manage expenses somehow. I touched his feet and begged him, but he just wouldn’t listen,” said Ali, who works as a day labourer on nearby farms. 

A second family in Magurmari also had two family members trapped in the Ksan mine. Mizanur Sheikh, 32, and his brother-in-law, Abdul Mozid, went to the mines to pay off their debts.

Sheikh used to work at the mines, but quit to sell vegetables in the local market, a venture that did not go too well. He took a series of loans, first for the business, and later for medical expenses after he contracted malaria. Today, he has a debt of Rs 113,000 ($1,625).

Mozid, who drove a small van until four months ago, borrowed money from various people to build a new house.

“Both Mozid and Mizanur decided that the only way out of debt was to work in the mine because it pays better,” said 17-year-old Sameer Azad*, Mizanur’s cousin.

“We told him not to go, but do kids listen to parents?” said Mohammad Ali, Mozid’s father. His other three sons do daily wage jobs, but Mizanur was the highest earning member of the family. 

“The lenders have been coming now, but we cannot blame them as they are poor too,” Mohammad Ali said.





Bodiot Zaman shows a copy of the identity card of his trapped son Abdul Kalam Sheikh [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]

‘We would crawl up to 30 feet inside’

The physical dangers of working in the “rat-hole” mine take a backseat before the relatively better wages from working at the mine.

Abdul Karim worked in such a mine until seven years ago, when a large rock fell on his spine and confined him to a wheelchair.

“We would crawl up to 30 feet (about nine metres) inside in a crevice that’s just about two feet high, and slide on our backs to chip out the coal with a pickaxe,” said the 28-year-old.

But the accident did not deter his elder brother, 32-year-old Abdul Kalam Sheikh, from working in “rat-hole” mines six years ago.

“He pondered for long, especially after my accident, but he decided that the wages were worth it,” Karim told Al Jazeera.

With Karim immobile, Kalam was the sole breadwinner in the family. He had educated all four of his younger sisters. One of them finished her bachelor’s degree this year – a rarity in a village where most girls are married off before they reach the marriage age of 18.

Kalam has a son who will soon turn one; the couple are expecting their second child next month. He had gone to Ksan few days after Omor and Shirapat – they had told him over the phone that the money was good.

When the news broke of the miners’ fate, his uncle, Rupiot Zaman went to Ksan along with six others from Magurmari.

“There was no evidence of anyone living in the plastic sheds where the men lived. No clothes, no bags. Only the cots that they slept on were there,” he said.

The men returned home four days later, empty-handed. 

“We were hoping that at least the bodies would be found, but the water was not receding and it was expensive for us to arrange food every day,” said Zaman, who has worked in a coal mine for more than 15 years

Cajoling her crying four-month-old daughter, while her two-and-half years old clings to her, Nafisa said, “My husband had sent his photo when he reached there on someone else’s phone in the village, since I don’t have a smartphone. The only other photo I have of him is from his ID card.”

As I leave, the angry voice of a woman breaks the eerie silence in the village: “Close those mines, otherwise all our sons will be gone.”

Names with (*) have been changed since they are minors.

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Ottawa transit commission hopes to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for OC Transpo workers

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Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.

More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.

Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.

OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.

Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.

Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.

“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.

“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.

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COVID-19: Ottawa police announce end of 24-7 presence at Ontario-Quebec border

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Less than two days after the Ontario government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, calling for non-essential traffic to be stopped at the province’s borders with Quebec and Manitoba, the Ottawa Police Service has announced it is stopping its 24-hour checkpoints.

According to a statement issued by the service Tuesday evening, the around-the-clock border checkpoints were set to end as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday in favour of rotating checkpoints across the city throughout the day until Ontario’s temporary regulations end.

“Since the onset of the border operations, the OPS has been working closely with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) along with local stakeholders and interprovincial stakeholders (the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, the Ontario Provincial Police etc.) to assess any local public health, traffic and safety impacts. The assessment resulted in today’s operational changes,” the statement said.

“The operational changes announced today are designed to better ensure the health and safety of all, to minimize delays and/or hazards for travellers and to ensure essential workers can get to their places of employment on time.”

The statement also said the police service, while working to comply with the provincial order, was focused on education and enforcement actions that “support improved public health outcomes and respect the concerns of our most marginalized and racialized communities”

Officers said they will be conducting daily assessments on border crossings and that there could be further changes.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that the border closures are ultimately subject to the discretion of local police enforcing the regulations.

“Local police services are best positioned to determine the operational deployments necessary to ensure the continued safety of their communities,” the spokesperson said, noting that the order’s regulations still apply to individuals entering the province.

The temporary order restricts Quebec residents from entering Ontario. If prompted, individuals must stop when directed by an enforcement officials and provide their reason for entering the province.

The main exemptions to the restrictions include if the person’s main home is in the province, if they work in Ontario, if they’re transporting goods, if they’re exercising Indigenous or treaty rights, if they need health care or if there’s a basis on compassionate grounds.

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COVID-19 vaccines in Ottawa: Nearly half of all residents in their 60s have at least one dose

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Public Health’s latest COVID-19 vaccination update shows that nearly half of all residents 60 to 69 years old have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a figure that has all but doubled in the past week.

OPH’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows 58,000 residents 60 to 69 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for 49.3 per cent of that age group’s population in Ottawa. Last Wednesday, OPH reported 30,000 residents 60 to 69 had had at least one dose, which was 25.4 per cent.

As age demographics get younger, the population grows larger and the coverage by percentage may appear to grow more slowly, even if clinics are vaccinating greater numbers of people. For example, the latest figures show that 83 per cent of people aged 70 to 79 have had at least one dose. By raw population that’s 60,000 people, only slightly higher than half of all people in their 60s.

Vaccinations are open through the Ontario portal to anyone 60 and older and, this week, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for administration at pharmacies and primary care clinics to anyone in Ontario 40 and older.

OPH reported a new shipment this week of 25,740 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. To date, Ottawa has received 305,130 doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the provincial government.

The number of eligible residents (i.e. 16 and older) with at least one dose of a vaccine is now up to 28 per cent.

Tuesday was Ottawa’s second-busiest day for vaccinations overall, with the OPH reporting 9,729 shots administered. Last Friday saw 9,887 shots administered in a single day.

QUICK STATS

  • Ottawa residents with at least one dose: 248,668
  • Ottawa residents with two doses: 26,722
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with at least one dose: 28 per cent
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with two doses: 3 per cent
  • Percent of total population with at least one dose: 24 per cent
  • Percent of total population with two doses: 3 per cent

VACCINATION COVERAGE BY AGE FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS WITH AT LEAST ONE DOSE

  • 10-19: 1.6 per cent (1,804 people)
  • 20-29: 8.3 per cent (13,452 people)
  • 30-39: 9.5 per cent (14,999 people)
  • 40-49: 12.9 per cent (17,350 people)
  • 50-59: 28.8 per cent (40,320 people)
  • 60-69: 49.3 per cent (58,627 people)
  • 70-79: 82.9 per cent (62,808 people)
  • 80-89: 87.5 per cent (29,358 people)
  • 90+: 89.2 per cent (7,893 people)
  • Unknown age: 2,057 people 

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