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Rat miners, the real heroes of Silkyara tunnel rescue

Expert labourers use the manual drilling technique known as "rat-hole mining," which is particularly popular in Meghalaya. Digging into the earth, narrow holes are typically just big enough to accommodate a single person.

 Rat miners, the heroes of Silkyara tunnel rescue anr
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First Published Nov 29, 2023, 12:59 PM IST

Rescuers on Tuesday finally freed all 41 workers who had been stuck in Uttarakhand's Silkyara tunnel since November 12 after a tense 17-day effort. There was a moment of relief when Union Minister V K Singh and Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami welcomed the rescued workers, capping a multi-agency effort characterised by alternating feelings of optimism and despair.

When heavy machinery malfunctioned while trying to get through the debris, trapping 41 workers in a tunnel in the Indian Himalayas, authorities called in a group of people known as "rat-hole miners," whose occupation is banned in the country. As the name suggests, these are workers who, like rats, build very small tunnels that one person can climb into.

The final part of the rescue operation was carried out by "rat miners," who successfully finished the drilling procedure, clearing all debris so that the pipelines could be laid and the trapped workers could exit the collapsed tunnel. This came about after multiple delays caused by the US auger machine breaking down. 
Those heroes are six rat miners namely Prasadi Lodi, Rakesh Rajput, Babu Damar, Bhupendra Rajput, Jaitram Rajput and Surya who came from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh. How did the miners get the name Rat Miners?

With only 15 of the 60 metres needed to reach the trapped men, a second drilling machine malfunctioned, forcing the "rat miners" to begin work late on Monday. One person did the drilling, another collected the debris, and a third pushed it out of the pipe as they worked in two teams of three each. They proceeded to drill the last 15 meters of the tunnel bare-handed, using their unique tools. When they finally got inside the tunnel and found the people who had been trapped for 17 days, they 'hugged us like a family,' says the Rat Miners.

Who are Rat Miners?

Rat-hole mining is the most common form of manual mining in Meghalaya. Narrow pits are dug in the ground, usually only large enough for one person to enter. The term "Rat Hole" refers to such narrow holes made by humans in the ground. The miner uses bamboo ladders and a rope to descend into the holes after excavating them. This is a very dangerous procedure that is typically used to extract coal. Many nations have made it illegal because of the rising number of suffocation, oxygen deprivation, and starvation deaths among miners.

The mountain ranges of India's northeastern state of Meghalaya are famous for coal. Due to this, illegal coal mining is rampant. However accessibility and poor quality have reduced the government's focus on these areas. In the 1970s, India nationalized coal mines. Later, the monopoly for coal mining was handed over to the state-run Coal India. The Rat Miners made long tunnels by going down through the tunnels using ropes and bamboo sticks. When coals were found in between, they were filled in sacks and brought out from there. Children also flocked to this profession when they were offered pretty good wages.

At least 15 miners were killed in one such "rat hole" mine in Meghalaya after being trapped for more than a month until January 2019 - one of the many tragedies in the state where reports say 10,000 to 15,000 have died in such mines between 2007 and 2014.  In 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned rat hole mining.

However, in 2019, 15 workers who lived in such a mine with reduced air circulation for almost a month were killed. According to reports, rat hole mining is still active in remote areas of Meghalaya. In a press conference held by the government, it was claimed that the rat miners who rescued the workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel did not carry out illegal mining.

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