I would have missed its existence had I not seen her crawling along, pulling a wooden box on wheels loaded with lumps of coal. She was harnessed to the cart by means of a patch of linen strapped across her forehead. She was fair in complexion, wearing a short skirt, and her knees were heavily padded. I slowed down my car and turned to look. She was not alone! They were coming out of a hole in the side of the hill to my right. I noticed a thin outcrop of a coal seam running parallel to the road.
I was an Inspector of Mines, with the Department of Mines, Dhanbad, returning from Cherrapunji on my way to Shillong after an inspection of a limestone mine. It was in the year 1956.
I stopped, wanting to investigate. I peered into the hole and saw a number of such people coming out. They were on all fours, because the coal seam was too thin to permit standing or even crouching, and all wore heavy knee pads. They were pulling the carts by ropes tied to head-bands on their foreheads. They carried no lights, but some oil-burning lamps were placed along the roadway inside. I wanted to see more of it.
Almost all the miners seemed to be women, but I spotted one man and approached him. I explained my identity and expressed my desire to visit the underground. He looked surprised and scared when I asked him to accompany me. I took my torch, borrowed a pair of knee pads, and started to crawl inside, but soon realized that it was impossible to travel any distance in that manner, and retraced my steps into the sunlight. An idea then struck me: why not use one of these coal carts! My guide agreed, and we crawled back into the hole.
The carts had a removable side-wall at the back for easy unloading. I lay down in one cart, facing upward; my torso just fitted into it but my legs stuck out of the back end. My guide started to pull me to my unknown destination.
In the beginning I was reasonably comfortable. Only my heels hitting some hard unknown obstacles jolted me occasionally. I could not see anything except the roof, which was close to my nose. Suddenly I noticed that the distance between my nose and the roof was getting narrower and narrower: the seam was getting thinner. I flashed my torchlight on both sides, but I could not see any coal wall at all! I wanted to get down but could not: the gap between the cart and the roof was too narrow.
I had an awful realization that if my puller decided to abandon me there, I would be pretty much consigned to my maker! From what little I could see by the light of my torch, I was in the middle of a vast cavity, only a foot or two high but with no visible walls on any side, and no supporting pillars at all. All the coal in the thin, flat, pancake-like seam had been cut and carried away. I asked my guide how far the coal face was. His reply was vague: “Thoda!” (A little!) I asked him if the seam was narrower at the face, and again his reply was “Thoda!”
Having come so far, I did not want to return without seeing the end of it. I carried on for another fifteen minutes, but it felt like an eternity. I asked him again how far the face was, but when the answer was still “Thoda,” I lost my nerve. The roof was steadily closing down to my nose. I had had enough, and even started suspecting the real intentions of my guide and mover. I asked him to turn and return, which he did with full alacrity! He appeared to have heaved a sigh of relief. Once out of the mountain and on my own feet, I too heaved a sigh of relief.
I could do nothing to save the workers from the impending disaster of a collapse because, back in the office, I discovered these Meghalaya Mines did not come under the Mines Act. They still do not – and presumably the conditions of extraction remain the same even after 60 years!