The Children Who Work In Meghalaya’s Rat-Hole Mines, Where Death Is An Acceptable Hazard

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The issues that plague north-east India have a long history of being trivialised until the election arises and the area gains popularity as a large vote-bank. Among the various problems this region faces, illegal coal-mining is predominant. “Fireflies In The Abyss”, directed by Chandrasekhar Reddy, is an honest attempt at bringing to light the life of these mine-workers who are heavily dependent on this illegal activity for their livelihood.

The film, set in the coal-mines of Meghalaya, chronicles the life of an 11-year-old boy, Suraj, who lives with his father and depends on the care of his married, older sister – all of whom are Nepali migrants. Born into the coal-mines, Suraj has been deprived of an education and understands the stark realities of adult responsibilities at his young age. 

Using his story as the primary narrative, the documentary also explores the lives of numerous other residents of the area who have found themselves working in the mines. Financial hardship, revelry in alcohol and gambling, harsh working conditions, the pitfalls of illiteracy, ingrained patriarchy, illegal immigration and numerous other problems that surround these miners have been shown without pretence or judgment.

The ‘rat-hole’ mines of Meghalaya draw major traction for a singular reason – the pay is higher than that of any other job in the area. The perilous working conditions do not act as a deterrent. Death is an accepted hazard with tunnel collapses occurring frequently. Sometimes, a single collapse may cause up to 15 deaths. Children, small and agile, are usually at the forefront of this activity. In 2014, the National Green Tribunal banned the illegal mining and transport of such coal to curb the ecological damage and fatalities caused by this activity. The rewards, however, seem to far outweigh the risks and the mining continues illegally.

The film is composed of strong imagery and shots that compel the viewer to empathise with the miners. By following the conversation of children who have gone into the forest around the coal mines to play, we are given a glimpse into their adult-like thinking process and how deeply rooted the mines are in their lives.

Sincere conversations with the locals give us a comprehensive insight into their struggles. By learning about their history and upbringing, we are able to understand the mindset that drives them towards the mining work better.Their views on education, household management and independence are brought to the forefront by Reddy during his interactions. The film has done a stellar job at depicting assorted issues without comment, by simply letting the frame do the talking. The landscapes enable us to gauge the ecological impact of the mining activity on the land; looking at the miners in action, we can see the prevalent smoking culture; the dearth of food is discernible from the scenes focused on catching fish from dirty ponds. The imagery is the true hero of this documentary.

However, at many points, the film does go overboard. More time is spent on an exposition sans dialogue than required. Similarly, in the body of the film, long and repetitive scenes of the miners at work make for a somewhat monotonous watch. The only saviour during such times is the background score. The narrative poses another issue. In his attempt to interweave multiple lives, Reddy fails to do justice to any of their individual stories. The story often abruptly digresses from Suraj, only to be brought back when the viewer is just becoming involved in the life of another person. This leads to a mild, nagging frustration throughout the film.

Nevertheless, the film ends on a positive note that does bring closure with it. The optimism and generosity exemplified in these dire circumstances strengthen our belief that hope is the driving force in all communities. “Fireflies In The Abyss” has explored unchartered territory and opened up a conversation that was previously hushed. The north-east is finally being paid its dues.

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