When heavy machinery broke down trying to break through the debris which trapped 41 workers in a tunnel in Uttarakhand, the authorities called in a group of people whose profession is effectively banned in India – “rat-hole mining”.
While auger machines managed to horizontally drill through nearly three-quarters of the debris, some of it fell on six miners who burrowed in tight spaces to reach the trapped workers on Tuesday.
Fortunately, no one was hurt, and the rescuers successfully pulled out the workers on wheeled stretchers through a wide pipe that was pushed through the debris, after their 17-day ordeal.
“It was a difficult task, but for us nothing is difficult,” said a beaming Mr Firoz Qureshi, one of the miners, standing with his fellow workers outside the tunnel, their faces patched with white dust after overnight drilling.
The “rat miners” started working late on Monday after a second drilling machine also broke down with 15 metres out of 60 metres still left to reach the trapped men in the Silkyara tunnel.
They worked in two teams of three each, with one person drilling, the second collecting the debris and the third pushing it out of the pipe.
“When we saw them inside the tunnel after the breakthrough, we hugged them like they were family,” said Mr Nasir Hussain, one of the six miners.
“Rat-hole” mining was a hazardous and controversial method used extensively in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya to extract thin seams of coal, before an environmental court in 2014 banned the practice because of environmental damage and many fatalities.
The name comes from its resemblance to rats burrowing pits into the ground. The pits are sized just enough for the workers, often children, to descend using ropes or ladders to extract coal – often without proper safety measures and ventilation.
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 rights group say 10,000 to 15,000 died in such mines between 2007 and 2014.
There are also environmental concerns as the process can lead to land degradation, deforestation, and water pollution.
Still, many small mine owners continued to employ short people or children to illegally extract coal. At the time, the federal government did not interfere, given the state’s remote location and the low quality of its coal.
Uttarakhand Secretary and Nodal Officer for the Silkayara rescue operation Neeraj Khairwal had previously said the men brought in were not rat-hole miners but experts in the technique.
During a media briefing, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority, Lt General (retired) Syed Ata Hasnain said: “Rat-hole mining may be illegal, but a rat-hole miner’s talent and experience is being used.
“This is a special situation where we have to save lives. They are technicians, and we are using their skills and their capabilities to rescue the workers.”