KHLIEHRIAT, India -- After descending 70 feet down a wobbly bamboo staircase into a dank pit, the teenage miners ducked into a black hole about 2 feet high and crawled 100 yards through mud to start their day digging coal.
They wore T-shirts, pajama-like pants and short rubber boots -- not a hard-hat or steel-toed boot in sight. They tied rags on their heads to hold small flashlights and stuffed their ears with cloth. And they spent the whole day staring death in the face.
Just two months before full implementation of a landmark 2010 law mandating that all Indian children between ages 6 and 14 be in school, some 28 million are working instead, according to UNICEF. Child workers can be found everywhere -- in shops, kitchens, farms, factories and construction sites. The Indian Parliament may consider in coming days yet another law to ban child labor, but even activists say more laws, while welcome, may do little to solve one of India's most intractable problems.
"We have very good laws in this country," said UNICEF child protection specialist Vandhana Kandhari. "It's our implementation that's the problem."
Poverty, corruption, decrepit schools and absentee teachers are among causes, and there is no better illustration of the problem than the Dickensian "rathole" mines in the state of Meghalaya. It lies in India's isolated northeast, a stump of land between China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Its people are largely tribal and Christian, and they have languages, food and facial features that seem as much Chinese as Indian.
Suresh Thapa, 17, said he has worked in mines near his family's shack "since I was a kid," and expects his four younger brothers to follow him.
His mother, Mina Thapa said three of her younger sons go to a nearby government school and will go into the mines when they want. "If they don't do this work, what other jobs are they going to get?" she asked.
India's Mines Act of 1952 forbids anyone under age 18 from working in coal mines, but Ms. Thapa said enforcing that law would hurt her family.
The presence of children in Meghalaya's mines is no secret. Suresh's boss, Kumar Subba, said children work in mines throughout the region. "Mostly, the ones who come are orphans," said Mr. Subba, who supervises five mines and employs 130 who collectively produce 30 tons of coal each day.
He conceded that working conditions inside his and other mines in the region were dangerous. His mines are owned by a state lawmaker, he said. "People die all the time," he said.
While the Indian government has laws banning child labor and unsafe working conditions, states are mostly charged with enforcing those laws. The country's police are highly politicized, so crackdowns on industries sanctioned by the politically powerful are rare. Police officers routinely extract bribes from coal truckers, making the industry a source of income for officers.
In 2010, Impulse, a nongovernmental organization based in Shillong, Meghalaya's capital, reported that it had found 200 children -- some as young as 5 -- working in 10 local mines. The group estimated that as many as 70,000 children work in about 5,000 mines. Bindo M. Lanong, Meghalaya's deputy chief minister for mining and geology, flatly denied the investigations' findings in a phone interview this month.