DHAB (JHARKHAND): Sarju stands on a makeshift platform drawing a sand-filled bucket up an 80 ft mine shaft on the edge of a forest near Koderma. The shaft plunges to an underground landing area where 10 other miners are hacking at a vein of silica in the mine face and others are bailing out water and sand. In a clearing a little deeper in the forest, women and children squat on the earth, sifting the red soil and dropping the pickings into stainless steel bowls beside them.
They are looking for dhibra, the local name for mica, and these are the thousands of villagers who work in the illegal mines of Jharkhand. Banned by law but operated by mining syndicates to cater to the abiding global demand for quality mica at cheap prices, these mines are the mainstay of a local economy steeped in the direst poverty. Villagers like Sarju and his children work at great risk in these mines but to the administration, they don’t exist at all.
Mica is a crystalline silicate that neatly cleaves into sheets and lends itself to shine. In the days before synthetic substitutes were invented, it used to be a valued ingredient for insulation in the electric and electronic industries.
The automobile industry loved the sparkle it gave to paint, and cosmetics companies used it to give gloss to their products. In the heyday of mica, during the British Raj and into the first three decades of independent India, towns in the Chotanagpur plateau glowed in the lustre of mica. Each of them fancied themselves as Abarakh Nagari: Koderma, Jhumri Talaiya (the town famous for sending bunches of song requests to Vividh Bharati), and Giridih (the killing field of Anurag Kashyap’s film Gangs of Wasseypur).
In the 1980s, the government shut down most of the mica mines because they lay in the forests and couldn’t pass muster under the country’s new environmental laws. However, the demand for mica has not dwindled and this has kept illegal mines alive.
The mines are risky. Some are no bigger than foxholes into which only children can squeeze in. The better quality ore, called ruby mica, is found deeper underground. Older miners like Sarju risk their lives descending without any harness down rickety ladders into pits 100 ft deep to find ruby mica. Women and children seek lower-quality scrap mica flakes in the open cast mines.
In Koderma, the mineral is easily accessible, of a high quality and in demand from all corners of the globe. Before the ban, there used to be around 150 mines in Dhab alone, employing at least 10,000 people. Russians and Europeans used to come here. “Dhab was called Chota Calcutta then,” says Mudrika Prasad Singh, a septuagenarian whose son runs a tea stall now. “But those days are memories now.”
The foreigners may not be flocking to Dhab, but the mica mined illegally from the region is finding a market overseas through a clandestine supply chain involving local people, politicians, businessmen, authorities and multinational companies.
“The government banned mica mining long back. At present, there are no legal or illegal mines operating in the district,” says Sanjiv Kumar Besra, the district collector. Yet, the website of Koderma describes the town as the mica capital of India.
Nothing nails the denial of the administration better than the government’s own figures for mica production and export. The Indian Bureau of Mines lists only 21 underground mica mines, and just 244 leases, and mica production officially is a mere 19,000 tonnes. Yet exports are recorded as 1,40,310 tonnes in 2014-15, earning `341.60 crore as revenue. The vast difference between production and exports indicates the scale of the ghost mines in Jharkhand.
While the Koderma district collector may live in denial, heads have but to bow to the reality of illegal mining. Unable to control the mafia, the state government is now planning to legalise it, calling it “regulation”.