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LABOUR-INDIA: Mine-Field of Exploitation for Migrant Men, Women, Children

Ann Ninan

HOSPET, India, Aug 17 2006 (IPS) - Millions of tonnes of iron ore from scores of small mines that have sprung up in the onion fields around this small town in southern Karnataka state are going into building China’s gleaming, steel and glass office towers and stadiums for the 2008 Olympic Games.

India is the third largest supplier of iron ore to Chinese steelmakers. With enormous profits to be made in a trade worth 670 million dollars (15 million tonnes of high quality iron ore) from just the Hospet-Bellary-Sandur belt in 2005, mining has become a cottage industry in these otherwise exclusively agrarian villages.

Green fields of onion and ripening maize have given way to barren lands, scattered with heaps of rock and iron ore dug from irregular open-pit mines that go no more than four metres deep.

Emaciated men, women and children toil with the crudest of implements from morning to night, digging, shovelling, and sifting the red earth for iron ore lumps and fines (pieces smaller than 6 mm). There are entire families here, migrants from the starving countryside around the iron ore belt.

The boom in iron ore export has coincided with a severe agriculture crisis triggered by the failure of the rains, three years in a row till last year. Farmers find it far more profitable to lease their lands to mine contractors than to grow crops.

As a result, mining has overtaken agriculture to become the major source of employment in this drought-prone area. Farm wages have plummeted to a mere 25 rupees per day (roughly half a dollar), while adult miners are paid a 100 rupees daily (two dollars) – prized employment, never mind the harsh working and living conditions. Teenagers, meanwhile, get nine rupees for every ‘puttu’ (iron basin) of iron ore they fill, while their younger siblings give the adults a hand with sifting and sorting.

Every mining season – the arid months from September until the monsoon rains hit Karnataka – families in the thousands, many of them landless, migrate from Raichur and Koppal districts in Karnataka, and Mehboobnagar and Kurnool, in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state, in search of work.

“Back in the village, we were all starving. There was no work, and I had to borrow from the moneylender. Here we get 100 rupees a day, and I have already paid off a part of my debt,” said Hanurappa from Mehboobnagar, speaking for a group of men at a mine-cum-camp site at the base of a series of hills, 10 kms south of Hospet.

The camp around them was lit, not with electricity, but countless wood fires over which their women crouched, cooking the evening meal of cheap rice and a fistful of lentils. Older family members, mere silhouettes in the gathering darkness, huddled tiredly outside the individual tent homes made of blue plastic sheeting. Only the very young children were playing in the dirt, at the end of another relentlessly hot day.

For Hanurappa’s family, comprising his wife, three-year-old baby, brother and sister-in-law, this is their second season in the mines. Since their arrival in October last year, they have worked an average of 20 days a month, and been back to the village once to repay the moneylender and give money to their elderly parents who are looking after their older children left behind at home.

With a surfeit of labour, work in the mines is never certain. Shivamma, who grew up in Mumbai, but moved to an Andhra Pradesh village when she got married eight years ago, said while her mother-in-law and she have managed to get jobs every two or so days, her husband has been jobless ever since they arrived two weeks ago.

In fact, the family was considering going back to the village in Kurnool district, where at least they have a roof over their heads and the possibility of borrowing still more money from the moneylender, the old woman said. The family had had to borrow money to pay for the train and bus fares to Taranagar, the closest road-head to the mine, which they had heard about from others in their village.

Without regular work, it is impossible to survive because mine workers have to buy their own food, water and fuel, and if anybody were to fall ill, the burden of medical treatment is theirs. The Factory Act 1948, Mines and Minerals Act 1957, Contract Labour Act and Inter-State Migrated Workers Act 1980 make it mandatory for employers to provide childcare facilities, but there are none to be found in the area.

Shivamma has four children between eight years and 18 months. The youngest two are by her side as she and some 50 other women squat on a huge pile, separating rocks from iron lumps – the latter is much heavier. As she talked, she pulled the baby into her lap, and said, “He’s very sickly”. His eyes are red and streaming – in all likelihood an infection exacerbated by unhygienic conditions and blinding sunlight.

The only shade here is under a rickety folding cot that someone has carried with them to the work site. Three children and a dog crawled out from underneath when a four-wheel-drive vehicle drove past on the dirt track that connects the nearest village with the mine, which has sprung up close to a seam near the JSW Steel in Toranagallu that has yielded iron ore for more than 50 years.

Suresh Basavaraj, the 19-year-old overseer, who is from Adoni Village in Koppal, lets the women – all of whom are older than him – talk while they work, and occasionally joins in. The mine, he said, belongs to “Gupta Prakash” from Anantpur, in Andhra Pradesh. But neither he nor any of the women, including Shivamma, have seen the mine-owner.

The unlicensed mining business is a shadowy world. Farmers who have leased their lands are tight-lipped about information on the mining contractors. In mid-March, the office of the Hospet tehsildar (revenue official) had finally cracked down on illegal mines, serving notices to 122 farmers for leasing their lands without permission. “Strict action will be taken,” deputy tehsildar Venkangowda Patil said.

The threatened punitive action follows pressure from the handful of big mining companies, and Indian steelmakers who have been shamed by reports of child labour in the iron ore mines in the Hospet-Bellary-Sandur belt that stretches about 3,000 hectares and has reserves of some 2.0 billion tonnes of high quality iron ore.

Among the big exporters here are the state-owned National Mining Development Corporation, V.S. Lad and Sons and Kariganur Mining Mineral Industry. The National Human Rights Commission had written to the Karnataka government asking for an explanation following the publication of a damning report by a group of child rights activists in April 2005.

The report titled “Our Mining Children” concluded that “the entire mining economy gets to be projected as ‘sustainable’ and ‘profitable’ because of the large scale employment of child labour, and the flouting of all social and environmental norms.”

For the first time, the Karnataka State Environment and Forests minister C. Chennigappa raised the issue of illegal mining publicly by writing to the state chief minister, forcing him to promise the state assembly on May 4 that he would order an inquiry. “The state government will not hesitate to take action against illegal mining no matter how strong the lobby behind it might be,” Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy later told reporters.

But two months later the chief minister was himself embroiled in a mining scandal. He and two ministers stand accused of taking bribes worth 150 crore rupees (33 million dollars) from private mineowners in Bellary for turning a blind eye to the unchecked illegal mining, including on protected forest land.

The mining lobby dominates politics. Six of the seven elected members of Parliament and state assembly from this iron ore region are mine owners, and belong to the coalition government in Karnataka.

Dr M. Bhagyalakshmi, a researcher and activist who lives in Hospet, explained that mining money played a major role in the first-ever election victory of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, in the assembly elections in January 2006.

“I’ve tried to raise the issue of child labour, exploitative work conditions and environmental devastation at many fora, but the authorities have refused to take cognisance because of the presence of political heavyweights,” she told IPS.

Throughout the mining belt, a layer of red dust covers everything from the leaves on trees to village homes. The iron ore is dug or blasted by dynamite in the open-pit mines. The few farmers who haven’t leased their lands complain that production has fallen drastically since rampant mining on agricultural land began three years ago.

Basavaraj, whose family has farmed for centuries, points to the mines beyond his two-acre field in Bujanjanagar village in the Sandur Block. “The mining is killing my land,” he said. “Last year, I harvested 2.5 tonnes of onions. My neighbour handed his land over to a contractor last year, and this year my yield is down to 1.8,” he sighed.

Asked why he did not lease his land for mining, he responded: “I was very tempted, but my mother refused to let me give up the family land. She asked, ‘What will we eat once the money is gone?’ The land will yield every year, but the mines yield money only once for the farmer.”

“Illegal mining does more damage to the environment. The destruction from mining to the forest is only one percent,” said H.A. Wahab, president of the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries (FIMI). Wahab is the managing partner of the Kariganur Mineral Mining Industry near Hospet, which had won the national safety award from the Ministry of Labour in Delhi in 1987.

The big mines are mechanised. VS Lad and Sons, which exports two million tonnes of iron ore annually, most of it to China, has leased 400 acres in the hilly Sandur block from the Forest Ministry. A steep climb to the top of the ridge reveals vast, many-layered open pits that are cut horizontally in benches at three-metre levels.

Everything from drilling, blasting, excavating and loading, is done by machines. Sprinklers whirr on either side of the dirt road up to the mine, keeping the dust levels down. Here some 30 trucks wait their turn to ferry the iron ore fines out of the mine.. With deposits up to 60 metres under the ground, the mine, which will last at least 20 years, employs just 400 men. “They are provided housing in the colony there,” the supervisor, who did not want to be named, said pointing down into the green valley.

Not so for the majority of miners in this rich iron ore belt who work in primitive conditions in the onion fields-turned-mines. Hanurappa’s family sleeps under the open sky because they would bake under the blue plastic cover – the only thing that is provided by the mine contractor.

Their only source of water is a leak in a pipe carrying water from Hospet to the JSW factory in Toranagallu, a distance of 40 kms. In most mining-cum-camp sites, workers are dependent on the good will of neighbouring villages for water.

At Bujanjanagar, thirsty women, men and children abandoned their work to run after a passing tanker that was dripping water. Not one of them figures on the rolls of the labour office, or the social and child welfare departments.

It is as if Karnataka’s unlicensed iron ore mines do not exist for officials.

Nor does child labour. As the then central Labour and Employment Minister, Ram Singh Ola said on July 22, 2004 in a reply to a written question in Parliament: “The Mines Act, 1952, does not permit employment of children below 14 years of age in mines. Therefore, there is no question of fixing their working hours and wages.”

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