‘No one is going to remember us’ – Disappointed ‘rat hole miners’ who rescued 41 men from tunnel

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In a perilous Himalayan tunnel rescue mission, Munna Qureshi and his team faced the challenge of freeing dozens of trapped laborers. Describing the tense moment, Qureshi, a 29-year-old specialist, shared to CNN, “I could hear the laborers gasping on the other side with excitement. My heart was racing as I removed the last rock between us.”

Qureshi was among the 12 skilled workers summoned by Indian authorities for the recent rescue of 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed tunnel in Uttarakhand. Cut off from the outside world for nearly three weeks, the construction workers, situated 60 meters inside the mountain, relied on a thin tube for food and air, receiving frequent updates from rescuers.

While engineers tirelessly drilled a safe passage through the broken rock using cutting-edge machinery and experts were flown in, it was ultimately Qureshi and his colleagues who successfully brought the men to safety after the drilling equipment malfunctioned just meters away from the trapped workers.

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Local heroes, known as “rat hole miners,” these highly skilled excavators typically navigate narrow tunnels to extract coal, despite the dangers of their profession, which has been banned in certain parts of the country.

Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired official from India’s National Disaster Management Authority, acknowledged the illegality of rat hole mining but emphasized the talent and experience of these workers.

Workers engaged in this perilous profession are among the most vulnerable and marginalized in India, primarily migrants from impoverished states. Reports suggest they are paid around $5 for a day’s work, often entering tiny mine crevices, risking oxygen deprivation, and facing the potential danger of being buried under loose soil.

While most coal mining in India occurs in northeastern Meghalaya state, home to extensive coal deposits exceeding 576 million metric tons, rat hole mining was banned in 2014 by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) due to health and environmental risks. However, illegal operations persist in secluded pockets of the region.

Hasina Kharbhih, founder of Impulse, a non-profit advocating for the safety of these workers, revealed that an estimated 225 “rat hole miners” died between 2007 and 2014 before the practice was officially banned. Despite the ban, in 2018, 15 more individuals perished after being trapped in an illegal coal mine for two weeks.

Most of the workers involved in the rescue acknowledged the risks they willingly took when joining the profession. Nasir Khan, one of the workers, stated, “I always thought this job would take my life someday. I never thought it would earn me respect.”

Justice B.P. Katoki, a retired judge overseeing the ban on rat mining, cautioned against normalizing such a hazardous profession. He acknowledged the necessity of the recent rescue efforts but emphasized the dangers associated with celebrating the practice.

Miners still await the award

Following the successful rescue, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami announced a token appreciation of 50,000 rupees ($600) for the workers. However, some “rat miners” express they are still awaiting details of the compensation and have not received proper thanks or rewards from the authorities.

After the rescue, a list of 90 individuals involved was circulated, omitting the names of the 12 “rat miners” crucial to the final breakthrough. Mohammad Irshad Ansari commented, “A laborer is and will only be seen as a laborer. Whatever we may have done, it does not change that we are poor.”

We did not get anything in return: Monu Kumar

Monu Kumar, one of the workers, shared his hero’s welcome upon returning home but expressed disappointment: “People (in the village) are saying that we did so much, put our life on the line, but we did not get anything in return.”

The “rat miners” had to navigate an 80-centimeter diameter pipe, crouching for hours and manually digging through the final 12 meters of rubble to reach the trapped workers. Khan described the experience as “unlike anything we have ever seen before.”

While some “rat miners” express a willingness to continue rescue missions, others, like Ansari, face familial pressures to quit due to perceived low pay and high risk. Kumar, anticipating short-lived media attention, remarks, “Soon, these calls will stop coming. No one is going to remember us.”

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