For 17 days, India waited with bated breath as 41 men remained trapped in the collapsed under-construction Silkyara tunnel on the Yamunotri National Highway in Uttarkashi. .Several attempts were made over this period to reach the workers. Teams of engineers with sophisticated machinery tried their hand at it but progress was nominal and the labourers were running out of hope. Ultimately, it was a 12-member team from Rockwell Enterprises, a Delhi-based firm specialising in tunneling work, that managed to reach the trapped labourers and rescue them. .Speaking to the media after the rescue, members of the team said they were overjoyed at having been able to rescue their fellow labourers.Of all the persons who were present on site, it is perhaps these men who knew what it must have been like to be trapped, especially since the method they used to reach the 41 men has claimed many lives over the years..Called rat-hole mining, the technique involves the creation of narrow tunnels through the rubble using rudimentary tools. The tunnels are only large enough for one person to pass through. Hence the name, alluding to the burrows made by rats..Primarily used in Meghalaya to extract coal, environmentalists and human rights groups alike have been sounding the alarm on the practice which they said caused irreparable harm to surrounding areas and employed children, flouting the ban on child labour.Studies by Impulse NGO Network estimated that approximately 70,000 children were employed in the rat-hole mines. Most of these children hail from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Nepal..In 2014, the practice was banned by the National Green Tribunal via an interim order that condemned the practice in no uncertain terms. “We are of the considered view that such illegal and unscientific method can never be allowed in the interest of maintaining ecological balance of the country and safety of the employees. It is also brought to the notice this Tribunal that by such illegal mining of coal neither the Government nor the people of the country are benefitted. It is only the coal mafias who are getting benefit by following this sort of illegal activities,” the order stated. Local response to the order indicated that the NGT had hit the nail on its head with its observation that the practice only benefits coal barons and self-serving bureaucrats..It was little more than an open secret that rat-hole mining continued with no improvements in safety measures for either the miners or the local ecology.The State government appealed against the order before the Supreme Court, which passed an order allowing the transportation of already mined coal. Taking advantage of this loophole, rat-hole mining continued in the shadows. .However, the prevalence of the practice was exposed once again in January 2019 when at least 15 miners in Meghalaya were killed in a rat-hole mine after being trapped for more than a month, a fate that the miners in Uttarkashi were fortunately able to evade. In 2022, an article in Shillong Times titled "Mask of rat-hole mining falls in State" which described the widespread use of rat-hoel mining in the Nengchigen village bordering the South Garo Hills District, caught the attention of the Meghalaya High Court.The High Court took suo motu cognisance of the issue and directed the Chief Secretary and the Meghalaya Director-General of Police to visit the area and submit a report."It is made clear that the matter complained of needs to be looked into, without any political interference; or else, the Court may be constrained to appoint a fact-finding committee or even put a special investigation team in place or take the assistance of some agency so that the matter is appropriately and thoroughly investigated in accordance with law and the persons involved are brought to book," the High Court had ordered.The High Court did end up appointing a single-member committee of former judge Justice BP Katakey to look into the issue and make recommendations on steps to be taken. The committee's latest report stated that illegal coal mining has persisted despite orders. The suo matter remains pending as of today. .The issues in Meghalaya received little attention from the national media and authorities, but it did highlight the appalling safety measures that manual labourers have to contend with everyday. .The Uttarkashi tunnel collapse and the 17 days of uncertainty that the trapped men and their families dealt with, has once again brought the issue of of workers' safety to the fore..Government authorities and other involved in the rescue efforts at Uttarkashi were careful to frame the involvement of rat-hole miners by stating that while the practice is banned, it is not illegal to have the skill of rat-hole mining. In an interview with Bar & Bench, Arnold Dix, an Australian engineer and lawyer who was part of the team orchestrating the rescue operations, said that the rat-hole miners offered a gentle way of excavating."I only know now that it's illegal for mining, but we weren’t using them on a daily basis for mining. This was an emergency exercise and we needed them. They saved the day, because they provided us with the ability to go millimeter by millimeter, really gently underneath the avalanche, to get to the people," Dix said..However, it does not require any leap of imagination to realise that rat-hole mining has persisted despite bans, raising the question of whether bans are truly effective. With an outright ban, even judicial bodies can claim to have done their jobs by simply passing an order. However, doesn't workers' safety matter regardless of whether the work they engage in is legal or not?.India has the world’s highest accident rate among construction workers, according to a study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) that cited one survey by a local aid group showing that 165 out of every 1,000 workers are injured on the jobIn the mining industry alone, 14 persons have been killed and 55 injured in accidents just this year. .In the case of Uttarkashi, netizens have been quick to heap praise on the twelve men responsible for off the rescue, but praise alone does nothing to improve their lives. No amount of monetary compensation can truly offer them social mobility unless it is accompanied by improvements at their workplace and the provision of alternate means of livelihood.While their heroic actions are celebrated, authorities must be held accountable by more than just imposing fines that get directly or indirectly drawn from the public exchequer. Perhaps a re-look at The Factories Act, The Mines Act, and The Dock Workers (Safety, Health & Welfare) Act, is called for as is a reconsideration of the government's duty of care for workers in industrial settings.