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View of the Gold field
View of the Gold field

In Karanataka’s El Dorado, Former Miners Bite Dust

[By Pushpa Achanta]

Kolar –

“The main drinking water pipeline and tank has been built because of the relentless efforts of our women’s collective. That is the reason why this water is called ‘Magazheer Neer’, Tamil for water generated by women.

At present, the local panchayat monitors the water supply between 8 to 10 am daily. Each household can manage to fill around five to eight vessels at Rs 10 per vessel. Earlier, everyone was paying commercial rates of Rs 20-30 per can and spending no less than Rs 1,000 per month, an expense most can ill afford.

Incidentally, this is the only clean water available as it is purified at a plant established with the support of a non-profit. The water supply made available by the State in the public pipes is contaminated with cyanide, lead and arsenic. In fact, even the air around the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) is highly polluted with dangerous chemicals and other substances,”

reveals Alice Aruna, the soft-spoken but determined woman, who is one of the founders of Magazheer Mandram (women’s collective) in KGF.

Mining landscape and kids

Mining landscape and kids

Set up over two decades ago, the ‘mandram’ initially had around 30 members who came together to manufacture soap, pickles and notebooks, which enabled each one of them to earn around Rs 50 per month. Later on, the women began to speak up for the rights and entitlements of former workers of the KGF, which became Bharat Gold Mines Ltd (BGML) in the late 1950s, in addition to creating awareness on human rights and labour issues as well as resolving specific individual and community problems.

Moti Mary, 65, an active member of the Mandram, shares her story.

“My late husband, whom I married in 1965, was employed at KGF. Starting in one of the mines, he moved to the office. He passed away due to ill health while he was still in service.

However, none in our family got a job in his place. Of course, our six children were quite young at the time. There was really no assistance from the company except for my husband’s monthly pension of around Rs 600, which has now gone up to Rs 1,000.

I had got a job in a notebook manufacturing unit of the KGF but that shut down after a year. So to support my family I started working as an unorganised sector worker. Today, my children work in the informal sector in Bengaluru.”

The tough times that Mary has lived through are no different from those faced by many others who were once associated with the BGML.

Rusty abandoned machinery at KGF|Credits: Nicolas Mirguet

Rusty abandoned machinery at KGF|Credits: Nicolas Mirguet

Around 1989, the Government of India had begun retrenching workers, largely marginalised Tamil-speaking Dalits, at the BGML either with minimal prior notice or sent them to work in other states like Rajasthan. Those, who suddenly found themselves without a job, had to contend with another problem – insufficient compensation. Despite appealing to the company management on several occasions, the situation remained unchanged.

That prompted the Mandram women, whose numbers by then had risen to 5,000, to protest on behalf of their fathers, brothers, husbands or sons, who had once been part of the BGML. As their numbers increased and the men joined them, the management agreed to their demands, albeit partially.

By 2001, the BGML had stopped its operations completely, as the gold was minimal. Some of the miners, who had retired under the VRS scheme and those who had attained superannuation, got their dues. But those who lost their jobs because the mines shut down, are still fighting for what the BGML owes them.

Although, the Supreme Court had approved the resumption of mining in KGF in 2010 and the central government has talked about reviving the BGML, the status quo thus far has remained unchanged. Of course, the fact that restarting the mining activities might impact the local ecology and environment adversely is also not a very desirable outcome.

Located in the Bangarpet taluk of Kolar district, around 100 kilometres from Bengaluru, the KGF town consists of mining localities such as Champion Reef, Coromandel, Nandidurg and Urigam, which still has a mining shaft that can be visited primarily by former employees with prior permission. Apart from these, there are non-mining areas, like Robertsonpet and Andersonpet.

At present, there are 70,000 residents in KGF including ex-miners (as they call themselves) and their families. Most of them work in the unorganised sector in Bengaluru, as security guards, construction labourers, office assistants, and so on. Not many have studied beyond high school and local jobs are minimal. The lack of additional skills prevents them from getting satisfactory employment anywhere.

Where their quality of life is concerned, these impoverished residents neither have access to adequate healthcare nor do their children have many options when it comes to schooling. The hospital and other healthcare facilities are barely operational as there is just one doctor visiting there. And while the buildings are large and very visible due to their prominent location, they lack sufficient and reliable infrastructure. The educational institutions are mostly based in Robertsonpet and are mainly being run by private agencies.

“In a sense, we feel disowned by the governments of Tamil Nadu as well as Karnataka. The local MLA and other politicians do not care much about our well-being.

Like most politicians, they had promised much but did nothing. While houses measuring about 64 square feet with common toilets were allotted to miners who retired, those who lost their jobs when the mines closed did not even get that.

Indeed, in every ex-miners’ household, at least three to four members have to work hard to be able to pay for even the most basic necessities. The few whose children have studied seem better off than others,”

remarks Kannaiyyan, a former miner and President of the Gram Panchayat of a rural settlement in KGF.

Amidst such trying circumstances, it’s the vocal Mandram women who have managed to keep things going.

“Our current activities focus on empowering women individually and collectively. We have been holding awareness sessions on leadership and capacity building, human and gender rights and social entitlements and how to secure them.

At the same time, we encourage members to save money. There are savings groups of 20-30 women in several localities. They borrow and lend money at low interest rates as and when there is a requirement – whether for medical emergencies or other family expenses, investing in buying cattle or other livelihood needs.

Their savings range from Rs 50,000 – Rs 2.5 lakh. Besides, they intervene in cases of domestic violence and sexual harassment as the police and other government departments are largely apathetic,”

elaborates Mallika, who is in her fifties and has been with the Magazheer Mandram for some years. Her father, who worked as a blacksmith in BGML, was suddenly terminated from work and as the eldest daughter she was able to confidently support her family thanks to her association with the ‘mandram’. Leading by example, Mallika motivates other women to work outside the home to improve their finances.

A KGF family | Credits: Nicolas Mirguet

A KGF family | Credits: Nicolas Mirguet

Vasantha, 55, whose grandparents migrated from Tamil Nadu to KGF, is among the few women who have a graduation degree. She has done her Bachelor of Arts and is among the more outspoken and experienced members of the ‘mandram’. While her two children study, her husband, who was employed in the BGML workshop for 20 years, left it to work in Bengaluru.

“Irrespective of the hurdles that come in our way, as empowered women and members of ex-miner households, we will continue fighting our numerous problems as that is our forte,”

she signs off.

Published under agreement with (c) Women's feature Service(WFS)

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