His face alit, Waqil Hassan recalled to us, “It was the proudest moment of our lives. Not just for me, for every one of us.”

Last November, Hassan had led a team of rat mine casual workers on an improbable heroic mission to save the lives of 41 workers trapped when a tunnel being constructed in the Himalayas suddenly collapsed. Briefly these normally invisible men captured global attention and admiration.

The rescue accomplished by this bunch of impoverished workers is the stuff of legend. “When we reached the trapped men, they hugged us like brothers,” Hassan glowed. “The workers we had rescued told us that they were willing to give us anything we wanted – everything that they owned, their properties, even their lives. But we said to them – all we want from you is your love.”

We sipped tea with Hassan and the workers in Hassan’s modest home just weeks after Waqil Hassan and his co-workers had risked their lives to salvage to freedom the trapped workers. This two-room tenement was perched within a swarming low-income working-class settlement Shriram Colony, in Khajuri Khas of North East Delhi. With me were my colleagues of the Karwan e Mohabbat.

Less than three months later, bulldozers of the Delhi Development Authority razed this home to rubble. Only Hassan’s three children were at home when the bulldozers levelled their house.

At the time I write this, two nights of Delhi lingering winter have passed after the demolition. A distraught Waqil Hassan, now homeless, has slept amidst the ruins of his home with his wife and children.

“If my home was illegal, why was only my home demolished?” he asks anyone who is willing to listen. “Why not of any of my neighbours? All of Shriram Colony has been declared unauthorised by the government. Then why was only my home pulled down?”

There is no one to give him any answers.

When we had met the men at Waqil Hassan’s home, they spoke radiantly of how proud they felt of what they had accomplished in the rescue. “Our hearts swell like those of soldiers who have returned victorious after a great war,” Hassan declared.

Each worker had separate memories of the fateful evening when Hassan called them one by one to ask them to drop whatever they were doing. “We have to save the lives of 41 of our brothers,” he explained. None needed any persuasion. One of the workers was in the middle of getting his two sisters married. Even he left the ceremonies halfway and joined the others at the inter-state bus station a few hours later.

They knew that the task that they were setting out to undertake was risky and unfamiliar. But they gave this no thought. Each spoke to us about how important it was for them to save the workers. “All of the trapped men had families like we did, who would be waiting for them to safely return,” one of them said. “At that time, our own safety was not in any of our minds.”

The tunnel that caved in – the Silkyara Bend-Barkot passageway in Uttarakhand – was essential to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Char Dham project linking the four Hindu pilgrimage centres that are most sacred to many Hindus. The tunnel was being drilled in the fragile and unstable Himalayan mountains that are perennially vulnerable to landslides, floods and earthquakes.

Some geologists observe that even though the tunnel was being built in a geographical fault-line, necessary safety measures like emergency exits were dropped. On the morning of November 12, the tunnel calamitously collapsed, leaving trapped 41 construction workers, all migrants from various parts of India.

For 16 days that followed, the country and parts of the globe were increasingly rivetted as excavator teams dug deep into the debris both vertically and horizontally. They used sophisticated high-tech heavy augur drilling machines that were flown in from the United States. But first one and then a second augur machine broke down. Meanwhile, inside the mine, both the supplies and morale of the trapped workers was wearing perilously thin.

It was at this stage that the rat miners – ironically people who worked at the furthest other end of the technology spectrum from the sophisticated augur machines – were called in. Rat miners derive their names from rats who burrow through soil. Rat mining is a statutorily prohibited technique in India since 2015 because it is dangerous and unscientific. It is most widely deployed in the narrow coal mines of Meghalaya, often by children. At least 15 miners in 2018 and 6 in 2021 were killed while rat mining in Meghalaya, but this perilous form of excavation continues illicitly because of the avarice of private companies and the desperate poverty of the workers.

The rat miners who were called upon for the Uttarakhand rescue were from Delhi and North India, and they do not mine underground coal. They are deployed instead mainly to manually dig and install narrow sewer pipes, indifferent to the lack of ventilation and elementary safety measures.

In Uttarakhand, although road-sick after the winding hill journey, the workers immediately got to work, working by turns in teams of three. With hand-held drills, they manually drilled through the debris that remained after the large excavators had done their work, cleared the debris and laid a narrow pipe through which the workers could be rescued. In each team, one person would drill, the second would collect the debris and the third would push it out of the pipe.

It took this team of rat miners 28 hours to complete their rescue mission. They were delirious when they reached the trapped men and succeeded in bringing the last of them out safely through the narrow pipe that they had drilled and laid through the rocky debris.

Even weeks later, their eyes would well up with tears as they recalled this moment of their triumph.

When we sat with them at Hassan’s home – now demolished – they spoke to us also of how hard life was for them as rat mine workers. Even in normal times, they worked with the perennial risk of being trapped in the debris of the narrow tunnels that they would dig manually to lay the sewer pipes. The diameter of the pipes was so narrow that they could never even squat with a straight back at any time as they dug the soil and stones with their hands.

Moreover, they were casual workers who worked for uncertain dirt wages. Employed by contractors who typically paid them only in spurts, they often would have to beg the contractors for months before they were given their full dues. They were powerless before them. If anyone died or was injured at work, the contractor did little to support their families. And during the four monsoon months they were always laid off because drilling beneath the soil would be impossible.

I recall the last leg of my conversation with the mine workers. I asked them what would be their highest priorities if they became overnight the country’s Prime Minister. They were surprisingly lucid – and united - in their replies.

Their first priority, they told me, would be to restore Hindu-Muslim unity. “We are all the same people,” they said, “with the same dreams. We want to feed our children, send them to good schools, have a decent home to live in, and so on. The politicians drive us to fight each other about religion. But we are brothers and sisters, we are friends. We must hold hands and work for a better life for all of us.”

Their second priority, they went on, would be to ensure that workers live better lives. “No one should have to live the lives we lead,” they said, “spending our days crouched on all fours, digging mud and stones, not knowing if we will come out alive.” No one should be in their situation: they are never sure if they will find work when each contract ends. They are paid much too little to ensure a good life for their children – for food, education, decent homes. And the contractor is free to pay them what he wishes, when he wishes. “Workers should not be treated like beggars. We do honest work. We should be able to hold our heads high.”

And their third priority was education. “Government claims that education is free. But we have to spend money all the time, for textbooks, for uniforms, for tuitions. It is only through good schooling that we can help our children move ahead.”

His tears falling once more, Waqil’s partner Munna Qureshi declared, “Whatever happens, I don’t want my children to have to lead the life that I was forced to.”

Today, the conversations that we shared within the four walls of Waqil Hassan’s home seem remote and unreal.

The workers’ words about their difficult lives and their moment of heroism. Their shining eyes, their pride and dignity. Their hopes and their dreams.

These lie broken, fallen, littered somewhere amid the rubble of the ruins of Waqil Hassan’s home.

Harsh Mander is a human rights activist, peace worker, writer, and teacher. He works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, and homeless persons and street children.