Uttarkashi Tunnel Rescue's Star Rat Miners Refuse Govt Reward, Call It Inadequate And Symbolic Of Neglect

While Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami hailed the work of rat miners as 'huge role' in the rescue of 41 construction workers at the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarakhand's Uttarkashi, the miners say it is not a good work and they don't want their children to take it up. They seek state support to transition away from the profession.

Waqeel Hassan with four rat hole miners from Delhi, who paved the way for the rescue of 41 trapped workers at the Uttarkashi tunnel.

The rat miners who drilled the final stretch of the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel at Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand to rescue 41 workers have rejected the state government's reward and have termed it inadequate and symbolic of neglect. They have said the state should do more for them. 

More than two weeks after the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel collapsed, when huge machines were broken after days of drilling through more than 40 metres of debris, a group of 'rat miners' was roped in to drill the final stretch of the debris. They drilled through the debris and all the obstacles and allowed large pipes to be put in place for stranded miners to come out. After much fanfare on social media and interviews in the media, the miners returned to Delhi to the lives they had before their brief stardom — digging tunnels for water, gas, and sewer lines by crawling into three-foot-wide spaces without any safety arrangements. 

Now, weeks after the rescue that made international headlines, the miners met Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on Thursday where the state government felicitated them with Rs 50,000 reward each. While miners accepted the cheques for the sake of the decorum of the event, they refused to encash it. 

Waqeel Hassan, the head of the Delhi-based Rockwell Enterprises that employed the 12 miners, said the government gave them "stepmotherly treatment". He said while the workers rescued were given Rs 1 lakh each, the miners who rescued them were given half the amount. 

"We said the respect being given to us is stepmotherly treatment. Those rescued from inside were given Rs 1 lakh cheques immediately by the CM, but for us, who put their lives on the line, they are giving Rs 50,000. We also said we do not want this Rs 50,000 reward, but if they want to do something for us, then set a milestone that if someone does something for India, the country does the same for them," said Hassan to The Indian Express. 

Hasan said a better reward would have been the government facilitating the miners' transition away from the dangerous profession. 

"We asked them to either provide us with permanent jobs or give us an amount that can help us get out of this profession so that we do not need to keep digging holes our entire lives. We have made (the government) and India proud. This should, therefore, be a milestone," said Hassan. 

In an earlier conversation, Hassan told Outlook's Shreya Basak that the rat hole mining "acchha kaam nahi hai (is not good work)". In cramped spaces underground, flames from the gas cutters and fumes from the gas pose a constant risk. A lifetime of digging in such spaces have bent the workers out of shape. 

Miners told Basak that out of the wages they are paid, most of the money is taken by middlemen and they are left with around Rs 200. Firoz Qureshi from Uttar Pradesk's Kasganj said ideally they should have oxygen-supplying blower, protective boots, a helmet for tunnel safety, and support for families in case of mishaps — a distant dream, again highlighting the tussle between how it should be and how it is. 

While Dhami dubbed the miners' work as "huge role" in the rescue of 41 stranded construction workers, workers want the profession to end with them and not pass it on to their children. For them, they want education and a life not spent underground with no regard for safety. 

"We can’t bear the thought of our children entering dark tunnels, risking their lives. Will the lack of finance, education, and social structure confine them to mazdoori?" said a group of rat miners based in Delhi. "Once the media light fades, we too fade from the memories of the people. We will go back, crawling inside dark tunnels and do what is asked of us."

At Outlook, we have reported intensively on the issues of the miners and the brewing environmental disasters. From Jharkhand, Md Asghar reported about the nameless deaths, rising debt, and unemployment crisis enveloping the state's rat-hole miners. 

In his story, Snigdhendu Bhattacharya reported about the much-needed rethinking of the developmental plan for the fragile Himalayas, which have seen a string of disasters in recent years linked to developmental works like construction of roads and tunnels.