DHODHAKOLA (JHARKHAND): On the morning of May 6, Kalvadevi went to work at Ekwa, close to her native village of Harrayya in Dhodhakola panchayat. She and five other women went down an abandoned mine in the forest. But tragedy struck when the earth caved in and trapped them inside the mine. Three women died and two were injured.
Illegal mica mining is risky business for the 20,000 people currently engaged in it. The large underground mines are mostly run by contractors and the open mines by small-scale, freelance miners. The whole value chain is controlled by the mining mafia. The destination of the truckloads of mica sent out from here and the market price it fetches in foreign markets are not shared with the local people.
Lying in her bed, Kalvadevi tries to hide her tears as she says, “I went to work in the mines to feed my four children. When my husband and I both went, we used to make `1,000 a week. But with me bedridden, half the income has gone and we need more money for my treatment.”
Around 400 people have died in mine accidents in Jharkhand in the past five years. However, as mica mining is banned, most of the deaths remain under wraps. Even those injured in accidents are not ready to reveal the truth for fear of the authorities. Kalvadevi’s medical report reads: “Laceration wound after a fall from the stairs.”
The exploitation of the villagers is evident from what they earn. Those engaged in mining of low quality mica flakes in the open mines make `5 to `10 per kg. In the international market, it is sold for `200 and above. Those who work in the big contractors’ underground mines, rich with top quality sheet or ruby mica, are paid between `220 and `320 daily, based on the risk. Top quality ruby mica fetches `1,30,000 per kg in the international market.
“We collect mica and sell it at the collection centre and are paid by the traders. We have to accept whatever they pay,” laments Kurmi, a woman of the Birhor tribal sect. Says Saryu Prasad Singh, a village elder, “Yahan doosra business nahin hai. Hum dhibra chunna hi jaanata hai. Sarkaar ko dhibra chunna vaidh banaana chahiye” (Here there is no other business. We only know mica mining. Government should legalise mica mining).
In some of the smaller mines, children are preferred because they can squeeze into holes no bigger than burrows. On the unpaved road heading out of Dhodhakola for instance, it is common to see hundreds of children of schoolgoing age trudging to the mines in the morning, each carrying a metal dish and a sharpened metal poke. Most kids are pressed into the vocation at age five to add to the family income.
In Dhab, 12-year-old Pratibha said she has been working in the mines alongside the adults in her family after droppping out of school four years ago. Pratibha earns between `50 and `75 for a day’s toil in the mines.
At least 6,000 children are reported to be working in these mines. Childline officials admit child labour is rife. “Although most children in the region are enrolled in school, they end up in the mines after dropping out,” points out Indramani Sahu of Childline, Koderma.