I traveled to India’s far northeast last month, before the monsoon rains set in and rendered the mines unworkable for the summer. In the Jaintia Hills, in the remote state of Meghalaya, miners descend to great depths on slippery, rickety wooden ladders. Men, women, even children squeeze into ‘rat hole’ tunnels lacing thousands of privately-owned and unregulated mines. There, they toil to extract coal by hand with primitive tools and no safety equipment.
I was unsure of what the story would hold or the conditions I would face. I spent a week there, though two days were lost to arguing with ‘guides’ who, we believe, were hired by the mine owners to keep us from reporting. We eventually got underground to witness what miners were enduring to scratch out such a sad and meager existence.
As I was shooting an image of miners being lifted out from a shaft, about 300-feet deep, I wondered what I would do if the cable were to break and come crashing down. That is how four miners had died only weeks earlier. Where could I hide? Narrow shafts do not offer many escape routes beyond a few ‘rat hole tunnels’ that are two or three feet high.