Their day starts at 5am. They get up, have a quick meal, put on their uniforms and head to work 500 metres into the earth. When they come back to the surface after a gruelling day at the office, they are completely covered in soot and unrecognisable.
This is the daily routine for hundreds of Dalit and Magar youths from Ramche, Tos, Tampani, Tisrang, and Bayalikot of Saigha VDC in northern Dang who spend their entire lives in coal mines. Mining in Saigha started in 1990, the same year when the Panchayat system gave way to multiparty democracy. There have been plenty of changes in the country since then, but prospects have remained just as bleak for the inhabitants of Saigha.
The miners are paid Rs 50 per quintal and on average they extract up to six sacks of coal each day. "It's a hard life. We spend the entire day in total darkness searching for coal," explains Tej Bahadur Thapa of Ramche. Despite putting his life at risk every day, the rewards are paltry. He manages to scrap out a living and feed his family, but it's a hand to mouth existence.
Amrit Nepali of Tisrang shares a similar story. With his meagre income Nepali can either send his children to school or feed his family of seven. It's a tough choice. "If I send my children to school, there is not enough to eat. So they also help out," he admits.
Safety standards in the six mines in Saigha are almost non-existent. Tunnels may collapse anytime burying the miners alive. There are no lighting systems or mechanised trolleys to ferry the load. And the workers are neither insured nor do they receive any medical benefits.
Dal Singh Sunar of Bayalikot says he and his friends are terrified every time they head into the pits because they're not sure whether they will come back alive. He says, "If a miner has an accident, the others won't find out till much later because it's so dark in there." For coal miners like Sunar, Nepali, and Thapa, life underground as well as above ground is dark and grimy.