The dark secret of Jharkhand's shiny mineral mica
Families of the Santhal schedule tribe in Jharkhand are forced to descend into dangerous rat-hole mines to collect mica scrap for livelihood. Often they get buried alive when these illegal mines collapse. Those who survive suffer various health problems including breathing illnesses and even tuberculosis
Nidhi Jamwal 23 Aug 2019 10:49 AM GMT
On a blistering hot April afternoon, about 1,200 kilometres away from the national capital New Delhi, a pre-monsoon storm brew in Tisro block of Giridih in Jharkhand. Mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia), which dot the hilly landscape, swung from side to side as dry dust of a year-long drought blinded the sight.
The jeep stopped next to what seemed like a huge crater.
It is the Charkhi Dhibra village, informed young children carrying baskets full of mica scrap, locally known as dhibra, on their heads.
Mica, a silver-coloured crystalline mineral is a natural insulator. It has a unique combination of elasticity, toughness, flexibility and transparency.
India is one of the world's largest producers of mica, which is used by major global brands in the car and building sectors, electronics and make-up. Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh are the top mica producing states in the country.
"Giridih and Koderma districts of Jharkhand are rich in mica mineral. The local Santhal tribal population is completely dependent on mica mining to earn its livelihood," Jairam, who works with a local non-profit Savera Foundation, told Gaon Connection.
Officially, mica mining was banned in Jharkhand some two decades back. But, in the absence of any other source of income, local tribals are forced to descend into illegal rat-hole mines to collect mica scrap.
"They sell it to the middlemen for as low as Rs 5 per kilogram dhibra, which then exchanges several hands and is exported out of the country, mostly from Kolkata," added Jairam.
But, in the process, several Santhal families, including young children, are buried alive when mines collapse. Those who survive suffer various health problems, including breathing illnesses and even tuberculosis.
At Charkhi Dhibra village in Tisro block, the crater zone is surrounded by artificial hills of soil and stones quarried from the bottom of the earth. It is pockmarked with an intricate web of dark holes leading to the underground mica mines.
"Hum dhibra phodate hain [we collect mica scrap]," said Sanjay Marandi, who daily visits this mica mine along with his elder brother Buddhan Marandi. "We reach here by eight in the morning and return home after five in the evening. The entire day is spent underground. In between, we come out two or three times to drink water or eat food," added Sanjay, who didn't know his exact age and believed it should be 17 or 18 years.
Since the age of 13-14 years, Sanjay is collecting mica scrap. "Initial two to three years, I did not descend into the mines. I used to help carry around dhibra on my head," he narrated to Gaon Connection. "Once I crossed 15-16 years, I started entering the mines. I used to be scared, but not anymore," he said.
For Sanjay and his brother Buddhan, daily descent into the dark underground mica mines is almost like a 'family profession'. "My father and grandfather have also spent their lives collecting mica from the mica mines. There is no other source of income here. Dhibra feeds us," said Buddhan.
And, dhibra also kills them.
Recently on August 18, a couple got buried and killed when a mica mine collapsed in Santganwa area of Koderma district where the husband and wife were collecting mica scrap.
In 2016, six children died in mica mines within a period of three months.
A report, 'Child labour in mica mines of Koderma & Giridih districts of Jharkhand', by Ranchi-based non-profit, Child in Need Institute, has recorded 45 known deaths due to mica mine accidents in five years, which, claimed Jairam, is just tip of the iceberg. Some other unconfirmed reports allege 10-20 deaths per month in collapsed mica tunnels.
'Mica belt' of Jharkhand and Bihar
For over hundred years, India has enjoyed the monopoly in the production and export of sheet mica in the world, reads Indian Minerals Yearbook 2016 published by the Indian Bureau of Mines in December 2017.
"Mica processing is a labour- intensive activity requiring special skills. The art of manual processing of mica has been acquired by the Indian workers through generations and has become a cottage industry in the mica mining areas of Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan," reads the report.
As per the last year's worldwide mica production data, India is the seventh-largest producer of mica. Its annual production is pegged at 15,000 metric tonnes.
The largest mica reserve in the country is in Andhra Pradesh (41 per cent) followed by Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Telangana (see map: Mica resources in India).
Map: Mica resources in India
The report, 'Child labour in mica mines of Koderma & Giridih districts of Jharkhand', documents that sometime in the 1890s the British discovered mica mineral in Bihar region. From there on started the business of involving local tribal families for mining operations.
According to Ashok Kumar of Savera Foundation, the bordering region of Jharkhand and Bihar consisting of four districts — Giridih and Koderma in Jharkhand, and Jamui and Nawada in Bihar — has rich reserves of mica. The dust in this region sparkles due to the presence of mica in it.
Till the 1980s, mica mining was a flourishing business in Bihar (Jharkhand was part of Bihar then) as majority of the mined mica was exported to the then USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) for space and military equipment production. In 1991, when the USSR divided, mica demand fell sharply.
In addition, forest conservation laws in 1980s made it difficult to operate mica mines as these were located in forest areas. "This adversely impacted the local tribal population, which was completely dependent on mica mines to fill their stomachs," said Kumar.
Although mica mining is officially banned in Jharkhand, in the absence of any alternate source of livelihood, local villagers continue to descend into mines to look for mica scrap.
"There are 200 villages in four districts of Koderma, Giridih, Jamui and Nawada, which are dependent on dhibra as their only source of income. And, 75 per cent population in this mica-rich region is tribal. Their families, including young children, are involved in mica mining," added Kumar.
It is reported that the tribals earn Rs 50-100 per day per family by selling mica scrap.
Figures on child labour in mica mining in Bihar and Jharkhand vary. Some estimates point toward 22,000 children involved in mica mining in both the neighbouring states.
"All the families in our village collect dhibra. There is no other work," Totarai, a Santhal tribe member and resident of Teesro village in Tisri block of Giridih, told Gaon Connection. "We dig holes to find dhibra. Sometimes we find dhibra within five feet depth. Other times we have to go down 40-50 feet deep," he added.
There are no safety and security measures for the local tribal. "We carry a candle and matchbox with us when we descend into a mine. When candle starts to blow out, we know it is dangerous to venture further down," said Totarai.
The candle-test is the only 'safety measure'.
Low production, high export
Interestingly, India's annual mica production figure is lower than what it exports to other countries in a year.
According to the Indian Minerals Yearbook 2016, exports of mica decreased in the country from 141,110 tonnes in 2014-15 to 135,805 tonnes in 2015-16. These exports were mainly to China (62 per cent), Saudi Arabia (9 per cent), Belgium (6 per cent), Japan (5 per cent) and USA (3 per cent).
But, against the export figure of 135,805 tonnes, India's total annual mica production is about 15,000 tonnes only.
In 2013-14, India produced 21,412 tonnes of mica, but exported 127,882 tonnes. Next year, in 2014-15, about 12,488 tonnes mica was produced. But, export was 140,960 tonnes.
The Indian Minerals Yearbook 2016 claims the "reasons for such a huge difference in the quantity of exports and production may be attributed to the old stocks (minehead or otherwise) which are not reported."
In spite of over hundred years of mica mining operations, the local tribal people have remained impoverished.
"People in Jharkhand campaigned and fought to get a separate state so that the tribal population of the state can get ownership to its natural resources," Babulal Marandi, national president of Jharkhand Vikas Morcha and the first chief minister of the state told Gaon Connection. "The state has been carved out, but exploitation continues. Our tribal people live on resource rich lands, but are still very poor," he added.
Risking life for Rs 5 a kg
Inside a 8-10 feet ditch in Teesro village in Giridih, Chutki Bisra squats for hours to collect mica scrap in a basket. "Some days I am lucky to get one full basket of mica scrap, other days I manage only half a basket," she told Gaon Connection. "I earn Rs 5 per kilo of dhibra," she added. She owns about an acre of land, but this year being an acute drought year, she could grow nothing.
According to Totarai, the rate of dhibra depends on the quality of dhibra. "The thick stone type dhibra fetches Rs 10 a kilo. Poorer quality is sold for Rs 5 a kilo," he said."Through dhibra one person earns Rs 10-20 a day. He alone cannot feed the entire family. Hence, all family members collect mica scrap so that the family can earn Rs 50-100 a day," he added.
Working conditions in these illegal mica mines are harsh.
Buddhan Marandi spends eight hours a day inside the rat-hole mines and collects 15-20 kg of dhibra, which is sold for Rs 15-16 a kg (it is better grade mica). "Sometimes I get only 5-8 kilo of dhibra in a day … Payment for dhibra comes once a week," he said.
Poor working conditions means huge health costs. "There are people in our area who suffer from tuberculosis because of working in the mica mines. Some got treatment at Giridih hospital and have survived. But many have perished, too," said Totarai.
While tribals earn Rs 5 a kilo for dhibra, the cost of mica keeps increasing as it exchanges hands (see figure: Flow of mica).
"In the village, there is usually a mahajan shop where the local villagers sell dhibra. The rate of dhibra depends on the quality of dhibra and ranges from Rs 5 a kilo to Rs 20 a kilo," said Jairam.
The mahajan shopkeeper brings dhibra to a market in Tisri (block headquarter) were there are large godowns of mica. In these godowns, mica is sifted and separated on the basis of its quality.
From Tisri the mica is transported to Giridih (district headquarter) where it is tested for quality. Finally, it is taken to Kolkata and exported.
In the past few years, there has been an international uproar against employing children in mica mines and illegal mining in India. Mica is used by global brands in cosmetics and make-up items where it is listed as 'mica,' 'potassium aluminium silicate,' and 'CI 77019'.
It is aimed that almost 60 per cent high-quality mica that goes into cosmetics comes from India.
Some brands have become conscious of the source of mica into their products. Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI) is a "do-tank which aims to eradicate child labour and unacceptable working conditions in the Indian mica supply chain by joining forces across industries." International brands like Chanel, Loreal, H&M, Philips, BASF, etc are members of this initiative.
In the past two years, RMI claims to have undertaken several initiatives to put an end to child labour in mica mining industry in the country. Community empowerment programs were launched in 40 villages adjacent to the mines and processors to provide quality education for children, better health care and supplemental means of livelihood.
But, what do the local tribal of Giridih and Koderma have to say?
"Collecting dhibra may be illegal. Making children work may be bad. But, what other option do we have? Dhibra phodega nahi to khayega kya [if we don't scrape mica, how do we eat?]," asked Totarai.