Mongabay series: environment and health, just a transition
In Tisra village in the mineral-rich Giridih district of Jharkhand, about 180 kilometers north of Ranchi, the state capital, Shyam (renamed) is an early adolescent Dalit boy who hurried through the forest to a makeshift shop . He bought a handful of chickpeas, enough to satisfy the hunger he and his brother felt after spending a day in the abandoned mica mine. According to official records, the mine is no longer operational.
In 2019, Shyam lost a villager in a mine collapse during the monsoon. The fear of death prevented him from visiting abandoned mines in the forest area for several months. However, the need for money dragged him back to the mouse hole in the forest, where he and his brother spent a whole day collecting mica flakes and sold them on the open market for 20 rupees per basket.
Shyam was an eyewitness in August 2019, and the incident still haunts him. However, his fellow countrymen chose to make such accidents a secret. "No one died," his brother, who didn't know his exact age, responded quickly to Mongabay-India.
Human rights activists working in the area claimed that the villagers did not disclose the number of such casualties, fearing that this would tighten the constraints on illegal mica mining and end their only source of income. They said that during 2019-2020, about six children may have died in the mica mine, but they did not submit the first batch of information reports to the local police station.
Koderma District Superintendent (SP) Ehtesham Waquarib told Mongabay-India that since he took office in May this year, he has not filed a complaint with the police regarding the casualties of the mica mine. However, Waquarib admitted that there were some stories about casualties in the mica mine and the police are investigating.
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Rishikesh Mishra, secretary of the National Mining Workers’ Federation (INMWF), said that for more than 5,000 poor families in the Giridih and Koderma districts of Jharkhand, dhibra—meaning local low-quality mica flakes—is both a supplier and a killer. Tell Mongabay-India.
"Mica mining has been banned for decades, but there are still hundreds of villagers risking their lives to extract mica from the forest every day and sell it to middlemen at a one-time price, who export minerals to other countries through Kolkata," Mish La said that mica allegedly extracted illegally from Jharkhand is mainly used in China's automobile industry.
India is one of the world's largest producers of mica, used in the automotive and construction industries, as well as electronics and cosmetics. Researchers pointed out that the highest quality mica produced in Jharkhand was exported to foreign countries as early as the 1970s.
Mica dust is one of the main causes of tuberculosis among local people in this area. Mica miners are prone to lung diseases, and local villagers face higher risks due to lack of protective equipment and awareness. Local reporter Kamal Nayan said that in addition to the mine collapse, tuberculosis and other lung diseases also claimed the lives of several people. He has been writing articles about illegal mica mining for more than a decade.
Mica mining in India can be traced back to the mid to late 19th century, when railroad tracks were being laid in the Bangladesh-Nagpur area. By the 1950s, there were approximately 700 mica mines in operation, employing approximately 24,000 employees. According to the data of Jharkhand National Mineral Development Co., Ltd., the total reserves of mica in Jharkhand are 13,554 tons. This includes insulating bricks and mica powder. However, the Ministry of Mines and Geology of the Jharkhand State Government estimates that the reserves and resources of mica in Jharkhand are 0.2 million tons.
However, the mica mine was abandoned after the forest protection law banned mica mining in Jharkhand in 1980. But the ban did not bring any positive changes to the lives of the villagers. No action was taken to restore the mines, and the villagers continued to visit these abandoned mines to collect mica flakes. Most of the villagers wore vests and half-length pants and used ropes and hand-made bamboo stands to enter the 5-8 feet deep mouse hole.
Rishikesh Mishra of INMWF claims that men and women who have been frequenting mica mines for more than a decade often suffer from shortness of breath.
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On May 29, 2020, the former first chief minister of Jharkhand sent a letter to the current chief minister, Hermant Sauron, requesting the resumption of mica mining in the Kodma and Giridi areas. He said the police should not take action against locals picking mica flakes. Marandi suggested an electronic auction of these flakes and stated that it would provide employment opportunities for migrant workers returning to Jharkhand during the Covid-19 lockdown.
However, former mining commissioner Aboobacker Siddique of Jharkhand told Reuters that the government is formalizing mica mining in the tribal country due to casualties and health hazards associated with illegal mica mining and removal. He added that in 2017, the former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Jharkhand auctioned about 100 old mica mines.
Koderma Mining Officer Mihir Salkar told Mongabay-India: “There were also two mica mines auctioned last year, one in Giridih and one in Koderma.” However, there is no official confirmation of whether these mines have found bidders. "Illegal mining is different from picking waste mica from abandoned mines. Villagers mostly participate in the latter," Sarka said.
In 2019, the coalition of Mukti Mocha, the National Congress Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Jharkhand overthrew the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Raghubar Das, The coalition regime paved the way. However, once the mica mines and garbage dumps are auctioned for commercial use, the government has not yet found an alternative source of income for the villagers to rely on mica removal to make ends meet.
The MP from Koderma Annapurna Devi and the former Minister of State admitted that at least 8 families of Koderma panchayats depend entirely on dhibra for their livelihoods. Devi, who has worked in the area for more than two decades, said that legalizing mica mining is a much-needed step because it can standardize the process and ensure the employment of villagers.
Regarding reports of children working in abandoned mica mines, Devi told Mongabay-India that villagers are becoming aware of children's rights, which has led to a decline in the number of children who go to these mines to collect mica flakes.
“If we don’t legalize mica mining, then villagers will be forced to either cut down trees in the forest area and sell them, or die in poverty,” Devi said, adding that villagers only collect mica flakes, and illegal mining usually occurs. The area in the forest where private contractors are carried out.
Devi said that forest officials recently discovered illegal mining in the Sirsirwa Forest in Koderma. The contractor illegally dug 250 feet underground in the forest area to extract stones, and the police also filed complaints against 22 people involved in the case. "Legalization of mining in the area will put an end to this practice," she said.
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Environmentalists worry that commercial mica mining may harm the environment because almost all mica mines in Jharkhand are located in forest areas.
Nitish Priyadarshi, an environmentalist who has conducted extensive research on the Koderma area, told Mongabay-India that before the government restarts mica mining, the environmental impact of mining should be assessed, as this will show the level and quality of forest cover, water and air.
Activists said that the regularization of mica mining is unlikely to prevent child labor in mines, because despite the supervision and operation of Coal India Limited, coal mines still attract children and women. "The children still collect coal from the mining area and sell it on the market. If the illegal removal of coal cannot be stopped, how can you expect to stop mica removal after legalization," Rishikesh Mishra argued.
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(The author is a freelance journalist in Jharkhand and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-Indian grassroots journalist network.)
Banner image: In the Koderma and Giridih regions of Jharkhand, illegal mining of mica is still widespread. Photos are specially arranged.
Mongabay-India is a conservation and environmental news and feature service designed to provide high-quality original reports from the front lines of nature in India.