First tonight to India, where the largest-ever general election is under way. It's hard to comprehend but more than 840 million people are in the process of casting their ballots. The north-east of the country voted last week and that's where our Dateline reporter Amos Roberts found young children slaving away in appalling rat- hole coalmines. Politicians and the authorities appear to turn a blind eye to their plight but there is one Good Samaritan determined to give those kids a better life. Here's Amos.
REPORTER: Amos Roberts
In the Jaintia Hills, Bikash Chhettri is getting ready for the day ahead. While children elsewhere are putting on their school uniforms, Bikash is getting dressed in his work clothes. Bikash and his friend Lakpa live next to a coal mine. And this is where they spend their days, underground.
LAKPA (Translation): My name is Lakpa, my age is 13. Not 13, 14.
BIKASH (Translation): My name is Bikash and I am the same age. How old am I? 12, 12.
LAKPA (Translation): Twelve, he is twelve years old.
It's a steep slippery climb to the bottom of the pit. But the real journey starts once they get there. In the Jaintia Hills, they call this is rat hole.
LAKPA (Translation): It's too narrow here. Motherfucker.
Bikash and Lakpa, who is also known as Maklo, slowly make their way through a narrow labyrinth of tunnels stretching 50 metres into the earth.
LAKPA (Translation): Walk a bit faster, it's a bit different here. Just follow the path.
When they come across other miners dragging carts of coal, they have to squeeze against the tunnel walls to let them pass.
BIKASH (Translation): Are there more carts coming, are there more coming? Fuck, then where are we going to sit?
The boys will spend hours at a time cutting coal down here. It's hot and low on oxygen. They have no training, no protective clothing and no compensation if they get injured.
HASINA KARBHIH: (Translation): What frightens you?
BIKASH (Translation): We might get hit with a wire or something else. The rocks might fall....from above.
LAKPA (Translation): It can be dangerous, you might fall. Along the path, there are all these holes and you never know when you might fall.
This is just one of thousands of small privately owned mines in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya. The industry is unregulated and unsafe and relies on cheap migrant labour to do its dirty work.
REPORTER: Have you ever seen any accidents here?
LAKPA (Translation): I've seen one up there. I've seen one there. And I saw one when my dad died.
REPORTER: Did you see what happened to your father yourself?
LAKPA (Translation): His eye popped out, when he died he had one eye missing, his tongue was cut, his skull was cracked over here.
REPORTER: That is a terrible thing for anyone to see. How did you feel about mining after you saw your father die?
LAKPA (Translation): How does it feel? It's okay, you get paid for it. So what can you do? Without money, you don't eat.
The need to eat is what attracts desperately poor migrants from Nepal and Bangladesh to these miserable mining camps. They come despite the lack of running water, schools and doctors, and the daily threat of death and injury. Not all the children in this small community are working. Those that do are the breadwinners for their families. Even Bishal, Bikash's 10-year-old younger brother, works here.
REPORTER: Other kids your own age aren't working here but you have to - how do you feel about that?
BIKASH (Translation): We feel like going to school too.
LAKPA (Translation): He feels like going to school, but I don't.
HASINA KARBHIH: I still remember that day when I came in here and I was talking to the first kid and the kid was telling me, "I don't like what I do, but I have no choice." And those words keep ringing over the years.
For the past seven years, Hasina Karbhih has been a tireless and fearless advocate for the child miners of Meghalaya.
HASINA KARBHIH: Why does it have to happen? Why is somebody not doing anything? I've decided it's something that we need to take it up and then we started the process.
Hasina is the leader of Impulse, a non-government organisation that combats human trafficking throughout the north-east of India. She's been told that children here are working in the mines and wants to find out more about Bikash's family and his younger brother, Bishal.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Bikash, you are Bikash, aren't you? Are you Bikash?
BIKASH (Translation): Yes.
She knows the family originally came from Nepal. Her plan is to encourage the parents to allow her to take the boys back to school there.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): What is Bikash's full name? Chhettri?
The boys' father looks on quietly. He's already been warned that he's broken the law by allowing his children to work.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Bikash is 12 years old, isn't he? 12 years old? Eleven? Ten? Why are your clothes so dirty? Have you been working?
FATHER (Translation): Kids are like that. They play in the dust so they are dirty.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): How can you let these young children work here? We can't do that, can we? Think about it, they are so young and you are making them work here, that is not right, is it? You can't do that.
Even though the children are here with their parents, Hasina says this is still considered trafficking.
HASINA KARBHIH: Because these parents have already taken money from these mine managers, which largely the child has no benefit at all, so definitely it is directly a transaction of money involved. That is trafficking.
Hasina has heard that the boys' parents are frequently drunk. She finds empty liquor bottles strewn on the ground outside their home. Now she wants to talk to their mother.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): You've been drinking since childhood?
MOTHER (Translation): Yes.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Are you still drinking?
MOTHER (Translation): Yes.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): How can you look after these kids, then?
Hasina asks for permission to take Bikash and Bishal. The parents know there's the unspoken threat that resistance could get them into trouble.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): If we take them with us, we can send them to school, right? Their lives will be better as well. It can't continue like this for years, can it?
MOTHER (Translation): Alright. We'll be able to see them later, right?
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): You can see them, you can see them.
Five years ago, after a number of detailed surveys, Impulse estimated there were up to 70,000 children working in the mines of Meghalaya. Employing children under the age of 14 is illegal, but Hasina says the state government has done very little to stamp it out without being pushed.
HASINA KARBHIH: We wrote more than 60 letters to the government with the findings and still we didn't get any response. And instead I still remember the day when the government wrote back to us and said, "Well, you have to present the names of the 70,000 children. If you cannot do it in the next 15 days then your organisation is going to be shut down."
It doesn't seem to matter what evidence is presented. The state government is reluctant to admit that the laws about child labour are widely disregarded.
REPORTER: The conditions in the mines are bad enough for adults. Why do you have small children working in these mines? Is this acceptable to you?
AMPAREEN LYNGDOH, MEGHALAYA LABOUR MINISTER: It is not acceptable. There is a lot of ambiguity in this allegation also. There are many, many studies that many, many organisations claim to have undertaken. The credibility and the authority of their findings is yet to be established.
Hasina's organisation took these photos of obviously underage children working in the mines. As part of their research they interviewed 1200 child workers.
AMPAREEN LYNGDOH: We are yet to establish whether these children, as mine owners and actual mine workers that we have interviewed say that these kids are actually not involved in mining. Now, as the government...
REPORTER: You know that's not always true.
AMPAREEN LYNGDOH: I have my suspicions, but I need to verify that on facts.
HASINA KARBHIH: These mines are owned by a lot of powerful people, people who are actually ruling the state. So that's the situation. There will always be negligence of taking any policy forward and they will never do it very often.
It's hard to find out who owns individual mines. Harder still to meet them. People here have told me that the person who owns the mine that Bikash and Maklo work in, is a former member of the State Assembly. When we asked him for an interview he claimed he didn't own any mines. We approached six other mine owners for an interview, one of them, the brother of an MP in the central government, all of them refused.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Bikash, where is Bishal? We are going now, are you ready to go? Where are your clothes? Where are your clothes? Shall we go in? You come as well.
Hasina has made arrangements to take Bikash and his brother back to Nepal. She's heard about Bikash's friend Maklo and wants to speak to him before she goes.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): So you are Maklo? Do you work here as well?
Unlike Bikash and his brother, Maklo is part of a close-knit family and doesn't want to go to school. It will take more time to resolve his case.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): This work is very dangerous, isn't it?
MAKLO (Translation): Yes, it is dangerous.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): It's dangerous? Aren't you scared? Look, he doesn't want to leave.
Tomorrow morning, Maklo will be crawling back into the rat hole without his friend, Bikash. Bikash and Bishal will be on their way to a new life in Nepal.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Okay, brother. We will see you later. It will be good for them when they start school, it will be good for their futures as well. We'll let you know, okay? Say goodbye.
BIKASH (Translation): Bye mum...
The rescue was just the first step on a long and uncertain journey for the boys.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Are you crying?
BIKASH (Translation): No. I'm not crying. I won't cry.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): You won't?
After registering Bikash and Bishal's case in a nearby town, it's a mad rush to catch a train. A 6-hour drive on roads clogged with trucks carrying coal from the mines.
BIKASH (Translation): Train!
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Yes, that's a train. How do you feel?
BIKASH (Translation): It's good.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): We'll go on a train now. Wait, we'll get the seats.
BIKASH (Translation): Where are our seats? Here it is, is this it?
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Okay, take a seat. You sleep here and I will go. Okay, you can go. Really? What will you do then?
BIKASH (Translation): Stay here.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): And when the train stops?
BIKASH (Translation): We'll go home.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Where to?
BIKASH (Translation): We'll go to Nepal.
This is Siliguri, finally we're close to the border with Nepal and for boys used to rickety bamboo stairs, there are more wonders in store. At a local hotel, the boys enjoy their first hot shower and then change into some new clothes before breakfast.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Are they too tight? Are they okay?
BIKASH (Translation): He doesn't like them.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): You don't like it?
BIKASH (Translation): Look!
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): No, put it inside, you have to put it inside like this.
BIKASH (Translation): I don't like the doll on it.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): The doll? Listen Bikash, what do you want to do when you grow up?
BIKASH (Translation): I want to be a doctor.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): A doctor? What about you Bishal?
BISHAL (Translation): A pilot.
Just across the border with Nepal, there's a children's shelter run by Hasina's partner organisation here, Maiti Nepal.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Hello, hello. These are the two boys, Bikash and Bishal.
MAITI NEPAL REPRESENTATIVE (Translation): Welcome.
She formally hands over custody of the boys to Maiti Nepal, who will decide their future.
MAITI NEPAL REPRESENTATIVE (Translation): Do they have a grandmother?
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Yes, they do.
MAITI NEPAL REPRESENTATIVE (Translation): Their own grandmother?
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Yes.
Normally the priority is to reunite the children with any family they have here but Hasina is worried about what could happen if their father returns to Nepal.
HASINA KARBHIH: That is a concern, that he might pick them up again and disappear.
MAN (Translation): This gentleman will look after you like your father or grandfather. If you misbehave, he will speak to your school principal and send you to the police. If you do not study well, then he will straighten you out.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): Here's the school, look, all the students are here. This is the school you will go to.
BIKASH (Translation): It's so big, I swear, it's so big.
Hasina isn't sure Impulse can raise enough money for a scholarship to send the boys here but she pleads their case.
HASINA KARBHIH: So, I know there's a need and it's very urgent that they need to be put in school.
And the fees are reduced. That means the boys will be going to this school?
HASINA KARBHIH: Yes. They will be going to the school, yes.
So they will stay here and you will be with them.
HASINA KARBHIH (Translation): This is where you will stay. Look, here is your teacher. Bishal, listen to your teacher and here are your things. Okay, we are going now - Bishal, bye-bye.
BIKASH (Translation): Okay.
Everything connecting Bikash and Bishal to their old life has vanished from one day to the next and the last links to that life, the people who brought them here, are leaving.
TEACHER (Translation): You are going to school...Don't cry...
Bishal, Bikash, wake up, get up...
BIKASH (Translation): Give me another one. I'll give you a punch, don't piss me off.
This morning, Bikash's dreams of school are finally coming true.
BIKASH (Translation): I like it.
TEACHER (Translation): Rub it properly, back, front, everywhere.
BIKASH (Translation): We are getting everything we've asked for, school uniform, tie, socks, shoes.
The boys have had a little schooling in the past.
PRINCIPAL (Translation): Just write whatever you know.
Now the principal needs to work out how far behind they are.
PRINCIPAL (Translation): They are confusing "d" and "b". Did you go to school before this? Until what year?
BIKASH (Translation): Until Year One.
PRINCIPAL (Translation): Year One. Okay, for now you will start from Year One and if you do really well you can go straight to Year Three.
They have a lot to catch up on but they have plenty of time. Their days in the rat holes of an Indian coal mine are finally behind them.
REPORTER: Can you imagine when you grow up ever going back to work in the mines?
BIKASH (Translation): Unless we are really poor, probably not. I don't think so.
ANJALI RAO: Bikash and Bishal, we can only hope their good fortune continues. Amos Roberts reporting and filming there. Go to our website for more information about the people rescuing India's coalmining children.
Music composed by Vicki Hansen