River Mining the Seti river in Pokhara Nepal
Quite often you will hear people saying “if you go back to a place it will never be the same as it was before”.
One of the most enduring, albeit slightly haunting, memories I have of my previous journey to Nepal was meeting a 12-year-old river mining girl called Talika. It wasn’t a romanticized memory but one of surreal awe at the sheer size and scale of river mining in the popular tourist city of Pokhara.
I remember first coming upon the river banks and looking down at something akin to an Indiana Jones movie. A massive labor camp in a dried up river bed in a deep valley below.
I remember tiny specs from afar that were families working hard mining the rubble then packing it up into 70kg sacks of sand, silt and gravel.
I remember a man asking me to adopt his son. I remember a woman asking me to pay for her daughter.
Returning to the river mine
It was hard to fathom this scene as a regular occurrence at the time. It seemed far too grand to take place every year during dry season. But I was told it does.
I never remember reading much about it since then aside from a couple of Nepalese government officials saying that these people were damaging the river and should be stopped. Nothing about alternatives of work or human rights in these self-imposed slave labor camps was written. The only concern seemed to be about profit under the guise of environmental protection was ever mentioned.
A mere five years later I couldn’t help but return. It was back during the dry season when the river was low. Nothing has changed including the vast scale.
I pondered for many months over what I experienced yet again. A bizarre case of deja vu.
I went from wondering if such an immense scene was less vivid than my memory recalled – it wasn’t.
To hoping that a human rights watchdog had taken account of all this – they haven’t.
To shuddering at the thought of the police moving – they did.
And mixed in all that … what of the 12-year-old girl Talika? Was she still working here? – I wanted to know.
The immense sight of hundreds working in a river mine
So five years later and yes the river mine was still there. I stood a hundred or so feet high above on the cliff like river bank looking down. The Seti river is no more that a trickle during dry season. Grey whitish rocks and rubble spread out into the dusty riverbanks that bake all day in the heat. It would be a bleak and nondescript river valley aside from the fact that hundreds of people are dotted along that riverbed like trails of black and yellow ants.
Specs of sun tanned humanity churning through rubble, packing it up into grey and yellow sacks before carrying it up steep embankments. Never relenting. Each sack rewarded by as little as 20 rupees.
Occasionally a dull roar will echo across the river valley as one of the mechanised trucks starts up and slowly rolls away with a full load. Otherwise you might be surprised to learn the valley is virtually silent. So vast that the sound of metal on rubble is lost as hot winds the blow through.
Life and death side by side along the riverbed
As I make my way down a rough trail to the riverbed I come across several ritual cremations. The river Seti is where many Hindus cremate their dead. It’s not as prosperous a setting as Pashupatinath in Kathmandu nor a visual spectacle as Varanasi in India. But, it’s still a solemn respectful event to witness.
Yet mere feet away from a family paying their last respects to a beloved sibling there are other families working from the ages of seven to seventy mining the very same river bed.
So far, it seems, little has changed here.
The families at work
Down along the riverbed my boots crunch over smooth white rocks, gravel and pebbles. The tiny specks of humanity transitioning from ant like qualities to very real Nepalese families.
Each family has a near twenty-foot squared off section of the riverbed to mine for themselves. Each square is marked with makeshift markers and sometimes even cordoned off with string. Then within square are large sand pits with handmade five foot wooden frames sitting at an upright angle. These wooden frames have a metal grill composed of chicken wire or slightly thinker metal strands that act like a giant rubble sieve.
On average there about four to seven people working in each pit.
In these pits it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, child or grand parent so long as you can lift a shovel of rubble.
Each shovel of riverbed rubble is tossed into these sieves to grade the rubble into different categories. Sand is the finest. Next comes gravel. Then fist sized rubble. Mounds of each grade surround these pits as other family members pack up sacks to the brim. Then one by one they are loaded onto a persons back with a typical Nepalese headband taking a great deal of the weight.
Next comes the brutal task of carrying the fully loaded sack to the top of the valley for weighing and then loading onto the waiting trucks. Not a grain is ever spilled from the sacks I’m told by one man. If a sack is under weight then there is no note of payment. It’s simply not counted by the pay masters.
A river mine like this in many parts of the world would be automated by big heavy digging equipment. Here in Nepal it’s simply cheaper to have humans do the work. Moreover the river mine is technically illegal.
The lack of expensive machinery means that if it ever was raided then the operators can simply deny having anything to do with it. There result? The laborers are charged with illegal mining of the river and the companies actually paying them get away with it.
Deja Vu in the river mine
During my stay at the river mine I speak with as many people as possible. I’m hoping that I might spot Talika from some five years ago. I sit with a family and share some samosas with them. The father is grateful and full of talk. Then as is what happened years ago upon leaving he turns to me and asks if I want to adopt his son.
It’s the same question I was asked on my last visit by another family.
It’s not unusual to be asked this in Nepal. However here in the river mines you can see the anguish in a fathers eyes. There’s no explanation needed as to why he is so ready to give away his son. Anything must be better than this. Anything.
Old before one’s time in the mine
I move on to another mining pit in the river. Still no sign of Talika. I realise that in this vast expanse I could be searching for days.
I sit with another family and notice a young woman who’s standing with a basket attached to her back and having it filled with sand. It’s not Talika but something strikes me about this woman. She’s young. Perhaps in her twenties or late teens. But the open weather and hard toil of the river mine and Nepalese lifestyle has aged her.
She’s youthful at heart but it’s painfully obvious her heart is focused on work and already broken by the knowledge of the years of toil ahead.
Talika would be the same. A young girl I met for mere minutes. Her story pained me then. I don’t have to meet her again to know her fate. I see it this young womans face too.
A final recall
Many years ago on my first visit to this river mine I remember the father who wanted me to adopted his son.
I remember the mother who wanted me to buy her daughter.
I remember the families at work.
I remember the river mine being under the Kathmandu Pokhara tourist flight path. I remember looking up and seeing the plane buzzing so close over the mine as it shipped tourists from the capital to the start of their trekking vacation.
I remember thinking if the people onboard ever looked out their window and down at the scene below.
Then, the final act played out as years later that same flight path produced yet another low flying plane filled with tourists.
I looked up and wondered it all again. Before me the river miners continued on in their work.
My final thoughts were if the river miners knew who was on board these planes. The cruel irony of the flight path. And of the parents below hoping their child would somehow end up being on board such a plane with a one way ticket to a better future.
This is an additional article about the river miners of the Seti River in Pokhara Nepal
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