Unabated Illegal Mica Mining in Jharkhand Threatens Health and Lives of Locals
Years ago, mica mines were abandoned in Jharkhand, but neither the mines were restored nor were the local inhabitants rehabilitated. Consequently, over the years, the villagers continued to visit the mines to extract mica. The shiny mineral, much sought after around the world to add shimmer to eyeshadows, nail polish and lipsticks, comes at a terrible human cost. The illegal mica mining in Jharkhand threatens the lives of locals, and has resulted in many deaths in the state.
India has large reserves of mica, mostly found under forests in central and eastern parts of the country. The south-Asian nation was once one of the largest producers of mica, with more than 700 mines and 20,000 workers employed in the sector.
However, the impact of mica mining on the forest cover was devastating, therefore, India enacted a forest law in 1980 to limit deforestation. About the same time, some alternative materials were found for natural mica.
Be that as it may, the illegal mica mining is still progressing in the state of Jharkhand unabated. Various factors of illegal mica mining have been impacting the human health and wildlife; from sudden death because of mines caving in to slow death owing to lung ailments, the illegal mines threaten the lives of villagers, but it is also the sole source of livelihood for many people in the region. Moreover, as the job is illegal, no accidents are ever compensated.
Despite many casualties in the mines, no first information reports get lodged with the local police station. Helping people in the same area, local activists and human right workers claim that villagers do not disclose such casualties fearing that it would attract the attention to the illegal mining, which could eliminate their solitary source of income. While it is well known that villagers merely collect mica flakes as their livelihood, the private contractors have been illegally mining it on a large scale in forests. Mica flakes are sold for Rs. 20 per basket in the open market.
Exploitative child labour, death by suffocation in mining shafts, severe health hazards such as tuberculosis are some of the serious issues regarding the illegal mining in the state that need immediate attention. Around thousands of poor women and children are involved in scraping of mica from the abandoned mines, in order to get food and basic necessities to sustain life.
The local hospitals receive frequent cases of TB without any fail. According to Prakash Kumar, lab supervisor, Sadar Hospital, Koderma,
We get around 40-50 fresh cases every month of TB and 15-20 regular patients. The numbers could be more, but most of the patients do not come for treatment, thinking that it might affect their work. Others come too late when they become multi-drug resistant and there is nothing much left to be done.
Mica mining not only causes health hazards, but is also destroying the environment as large stretches of forests in the area are illegally have been and are still being cleared. It serves the dual purpose of mica extraction and provides timber. Koderma has a forest area of 820 square kilometres, which is under constant threat of illegal mining.
According to Suraj Kumar Singh, Divisional Forest Officer, Koderma,
A district mining task force has been formed to stop illegal mica mining. We conduct routine raids and nab those involved in nefarious activities. We seized 50 vehicles carrying mica a few months ago. We also try to reclaim mining areas and bring it under the forest.
The local lament the loss of wildlife destroyed by mining. They claim that earlier elephants and wild boards often trespassed into villages, and some rare avian species were spotted frequently. But mining has ruined everything and any sign of wildlife is rarely seen nowadays.
About 170 kilometres from state capital Ranchi, Koderma district is a hub for sourcing mica in the underdeveloped state of Jharkhand. People risk their lives to collect tiny flakes of mica so they could provide food for their families.
Seeta Devi, who scrapes mica from the ground with her bare hands in an abandoned mine at Domchanch administrative block in Koderma district, said,
We do not have any other alternative livelihood. We have to scrape for mica despite the risk. I feel breathless sometimes and even vomit blood. But what options do I have? The dug up pits not only give us a livelihood but will also serve our graves.
The child labourers drop out of school to earn meagre money by selling mica flakes. An initiative of Kailash Satyarathi Children Foundation (KSCF) has been taking care of the education of children who couldn’t finish their studies due to financial issues and work in mica mines. Satyarathi even received the Novel Peace Prize in 2014, co-received alongside of Malala Yousafzai, for his work on children’s rights.
Govind Khanal, a KSCF activist, said,
We constantly try to rescue children from mining and send them to schools for their better life. We regularly distribute saplings and ask the children to plant them with an aim to create awareness on the environment.
Indramani Sahu, the founder of Samarpan, a non-profit working for women’s empowerment and child rights, claims to have connected over 700 families to the mainstream by offering alternative means of livelihood to them.
Though tiny efforts, these are at least a beginning towards the goal of healthy people without any side effects of mica mining. The authorities need to implement strict laws against the mining that has disrupted much of the state’s wildlife. A permanent source of income is a necessity in the state to ensure the financial stability of the citizens, which could deter them from getting involved in illegal mica mining.
It is encouraging that there are efforts to dissuade women and children away from the hazards of mica scavenging in Jharkhand, but given the widespread poverty of the people there, much is left to do.