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Every Second Counts for Indian Miners Trapped in “Rathole”

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Indian Navy divers attempt to reach the 15 miners trapped inside an illegal ‘rathole’ coal mine in Ksan village, India.AFP/Getty Images

It’s been three weeks since an illegal coal mine in northeast India flooded, trapping 15 miners. Divers have been searching for survivors, so far with no luck.

Rescuers from India’s National Disaster Response Force and divers from the Navy have been trying to pump out flood water and get deeper into the mine. India’s Supreme Court today ordered the government to list the steps it plans for the rescue, warning that “every second counts.”

“We pray that all people trapped in mines are alive. They should have been rescued by now. We are not satisfied with the action taken by state government,” the court said.

So-called “rathole” mines are illegal but common in the Indian state of Meghalaya, which shares a border with Bangladesh. Miners dig down into a hillside until they hit coal, and then mine horizontally in narrow tunnels. The rescue effort is complicated because dozens of interconnected rathole mines all have water coming into them from a nearby river system, the Wall Street Journal reports.

At its peak, Meghalaya produced $4 billion of coal annually, about a tenth of India’s total production, Reuters reports. India banned rathole mines in 2014 after many deaths, including child laborers, but the practice remains prevalent. India is the world’s third largest producer of coal, and it provides 60% of the country’s energy needs, the BBC says.

Despite the immense dangers of working in rathole mines, the wages of 2,000 rupees a day — about $28.50, more than six times what laborers earn — are a strong incentive.