Social Investigation

Kolar Gold Mines

The decay of a public sector mining township

The recent order of the Karnataka High Court, enabling the reopening of Bharat Gold Mines Ltd., (BGML), a ‘sick’ public sector enterprise (PSE), has not only ended a year-long trauma for the people of KGF, but has come as a shot in the arm for the fighting workers of BGML. The 4000 workers are back to work and the 120-year-old gold mines have found a new lease of life. The people of KGF, facing an uncertain future, are heaving a sigh of relief. But uncertainty still looms large because the management continues to pressurise the workers, threatening that they should either accept voluntary retirement or face retrenchment.

The BGML, with a strong and dedicated workforce, has rendered yeoman service to the nation by contributing more than 800 tonnes of gold and, according to one estimate, it is still having reserves of more than 400 tonnes. But the Central Government led by the “Swadeshi” BJP is not keen on turning it around; rather it is busy dismantling all PSEs, be it a profit-making BALCO or a “loss-making” BGML. As far as BGML is concerned, the government has deliberately made it sick by offering a very low price all these years for the gold extracted. And now, after considerably depleting the gold reserves, it is considered a mere tunnel to be shut down, ignoring the plight of thousands of workers and their families. Since the township is already facing an acute unemployment crisis, with the workforce coming down from 32000 in the 1960s to 4000 at present, the closure of mines would wreck havoc on the local community.

Though much has been written about the “economics” of gold mining, not much is known to the outside public about the social life of the KGF, a township with a population of more than 2,00,000, the overwhelming majority of them being Dalits. It is an insular township of a cohesive but culturally exclusive linguistic minority, solely dependent on the mines, which has been in decay for several years now. KGF provides an interesting case study of the impact of downsizing, and ultimate threat of closure, of a PSE on a closely-knit local community of an industrial township.

Started in 1880 by John Taylor and Co., the Kolar Gold Mines was taken over by the erstwhile Mysore State Government in 1956, and later, it was nationalised by the Centre in the early 1960s. A large chunk of mineworkers hail from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Despite living here for more than a century, the people of KGF still suffer from linguistic minority complex apart from a migrant complex. The bad memories of language riots, close on the heels of Gokak movement in the early ’80s, when the Tamil workers were harassed, are firmly etched in their minds.

The first generation of migrant workers faced a lot of problems in coping with the situation under colonial conditions. Even today their conditions are not very different despite the mines coming under the public sector that claimed to be a model employer. Dingy huts in slum-like colonies, without sanitation and drainage, have been their homes for many generations. It would be heart breaking to see the labour colonies, which are worse than slums, with one toilet for every 1520 houses. The so-called houses, made of zinc sheet or asbestos are of the size 10x20 feet or 15x20 feet. While the summer heat would be unbearable, it would be a nightmarish experience during the rainy season, as many colonies do not have proper approach roads. Potable water is scarce for the labour colonies and the womenfolk have to tread a long way to fetch it. At any point of time, one can see hundreds of pots in queue near public taps and, not surprisingly, quarrels over a pot of water are quite common. Moreover, water here is highly contaminated by “cyanide mud” -- chemically treated ore residue -- which flows like streams all around the township. Even the ground water is highly contaminated. The mountains of “cyanide mud”, visible all over KGF, also spread lots of dust, contaminating the water and atmosphere.

The management never bothered about safety of the miners. When the air blast occurs several miners get trapped inside and many die. The family members wait for several hours keeping their fingers crossed, to know the fate of the workers. The agony on their faces cannot be explained in words.

Being a migrant population and having settled in an alien state, the people of KGF have a strange culture. Most of the workers are influenced by Christian missionaries, but the Christian converts observe Hindu festivals also. Their lives are full of pathos. The culture of professional mourning as shown in the film Rudali thrives here too. The problem of unemployment has made many government servants belonging to the SC category hide their Christian identity even after conversion. Since KGF is a highly cohesive society, where each religious community observes the festivals of the other, the market here reacts equally to both Hindu and Christian festivals. The traditions and religious practices of the people also look quite different. And it is only here that one can find a Ram Prasad being son of a Benjamin or a David or Victor being the son of an Anbalagan. It is only here that one can find a “Kannadiga” born to a Tamil migrant. This is the highly egalitarian culture of the people of KGF. Even though the Dalit community is a majority they are more united as a class than as a caste. And, similar to the village community, a person of KGF origin would be helped by the people here, irrespective of his identity. Many times the funeral expenses of poor workers are borne by neighbours.

The central and state governments proudly propagate that they have eradicated many social evils like scavenging. But this golden city still harbours the evil practice of carrying night soil on head, with over 100 families engaged in this activity. One major problem faced by the miners is their indebtedness. With the new generation not getting any jobs despite having some education, the miners are forced to borrow from moneylenders to keep their families alive. Apart from this, most of the workers have taken to drinking, which depletes most of their hard-earned income. The womenfolk have to bear the brunt. They would be sacrificing everything to safeguard their families. So the pawnbroker business has thrived successfully in KGF, with gold ornaments being pledged for perpetuity. Jewellery business once flourished here in the ‘boom days’, thanks to the ‘leakage’ of gold through a corrupt management. People used to come from outside to purchase ornaments from the “gold town”. As a consequence there are more than 200 jewellery shops here and more than 2000 goldsmiths who make ornaments. Now, with the decline of the mines and immiserisation of the miners, almost all jewellers have also taken to pawn brokering. Not only gold jewellery, even silver, brass and copper utensils are pledged to carry on day-to-day life. The workers, being unable to pay hefty interest rates, would never get back their items even after clearing the principal amount. There are instances of copperbrass utensils pledged 50 years back still lying with moneylenders and workers paying interest till date. The moneylenders, also migrants, have squeezed the workers to their bones. In fact, the poverty among public sector workers is unbelievable. One can see rotten vegetables being sold in colonies dirt-cheap and there are people who purchase them. There are people who survive by collecting the drainage silt every day and cleaning the same, in the hope of collecting some gold ore. It is a daily sight here. With Christian missionaries of all hues working here, there is a plethora of Churches and Churchrun schools. Despite the spread of education, poverty is still a stark reality.

It is this poverty, unemployment, alienation and deprivation that has contributed to the increasing criminalisation of society. With several rowdy gangs operating with impunity, murders in broad daylight were very common not long ago. While frustrated jobless youth with little or no education take to anti-social activities, the educated youth travel miles to earn a meagre wage. More than 5000 people, half of them women, travel every day in overcrowded passenger trains to Bangalore, located 90 kms. away, in search of work. Most of them do menial jobs, which may not be revealed by their attire or smiling faces. Behind these smiling faces lies a lot of grief, desperation and concern about an uncertain future.

Since preindependence days, KGF is known for its strong trade union movement, mainly led by the left parties. The city could boast of great left leaders like M.C. Narasimhan, Govindan and K.S. Wasan, under whose successful leadership a strong union could be built and so many benefits for the workers could be achieved. The city could also boast of many freedom fighters, and some of them are still alive. The torching of the Sanitary Board Office during the Quit India movement was golden moment of the freedom struggle. A 100-day strike by miners in late forties was led by AITUC and it could make the CPI a strong political party here till the ’60s. Many exploitative and anti-labour policies of John Taylor and Co. were successfully fought by the party. KGF came to be known as the “Red Town” in Karnataka. But, over the years, with the arrival of parties like the DMK, RPI, and later on the AIADMK, the hold of left parties weakened. Today, the CPI is extinct and the CPI(M) has almost lost its relevance in KGF due to various factors, especially a lack of political vision and nonperformance.

Right now all major political parties have their own unions in BGML. There are more than 24 unions. The miners were taken for a ride by all these unions and parties. After the central government declared BGML a sick unit, a pall of uncertainty gripped the people of KGF, and from then on, they have lost faith in most of the parties. An unknown individual could win the MLA election, just by giving false promises. People rallied behind him, deserting all mainstream parties. Now the majority is behind the BJP, which has however pushed them to the corner by privatisation moves. History has turned full circle over the past 50 years. Saffron flags have replaced fed flags. Trishuls have replaced hammer and sickle. The left in general has no one to blame but itself for this.

The whole tragedy of the KGF people’s lives is camouflaged by one extension of the township, Robertsonpet. Thickly populated by elite sections of society, this extension is the nerve centre of the economy of this township. With more than 200 jewellery shops adorning the place, it provides most modern marketing comforts for the elite along with latest medical facilities and a high standard of education. Despite these elitist characteristics, the entire economy of this market centre depends on the miners. A strike by BGML workers would send the market crashing. Even the presence of a large number of BEML executives would not help in revival of the market.

Apart from BGML, there is also a broad section of government employees in KGF. Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) a PSE which employs more than 8000 workers, is just 3 kms away, and almost half of them live here. The Bethamangala Water Works, that supplies water to KGF town, employs more than 1000. The KPTCL, which has an exclusive office for BGML, employs more than 1000. The city also has an engineering college and a large number of schools run by Christian missionaries. The BGML also has its own hospital for the benefit of workers, employing around 500 staff. In the event of closure of mines, the hospital would be the first casualty and the rest would follow, crashing like a pack of cards. In that case, thousands of families would be on the streets. More than 2000 goldsmiths who depend on jewellery shops would also face their doom.

As mentioned earlier, under the present atmosphere of globalisation and large-scale privatisation, the survival of BGML or the mining industry itself is in jeopardy. Already, the Government of India has given a deadline for the workers to either opt for VRS or face retrenchment. The mineworkers numbering 30,000 -- both retired and working -- and their families staying in those tiny sheds, are being asked to pay higher rent or vacate the houses. Interestingly, the older generation workers had to wear a metal bracelet on their left hand, which had the name of John Taylor and Co., embossed on it along with a number and name of the mine. It was to ensure that the worker would not run away. The bracelet was very tight and the workers had no option but to wear it. This practice was given up in 1940 due to protests from miners. Till the 1930s, 5 to 6 families were staying in one shed. It was only after a great struggle that the management provided one house to each family. The workers could get those tiny houses only after a hundred-day strike in 1946, under AITUC leadership. Till date, very few miners have left the place. But today the governments resort to all sorts of tricks to force them to leave.

The contention of the mineworkers, and also many experts, that 400 tonnes of gold reserves are still available, is not acceptable to the government. Nor is the government serious about providing any alternative employment. Some Japanese and Australian firms have come forward to carry out mining activities. Then how come the Government of India denies existence of any reserves? Till date, the BGML has produced 800 tonnes of gold worth Rs. 45000 crore. The company owes only Rs. 200 crores to several banks. The cost of producing 10 grams of the metal has gone up to Rs. 1400. In its better days, the BGML paid dividend up to 165%, having produced a maximum of 2200 kgs of gold in 197677. It is a case of colossal and criminal mismanagement if a gold mine with such reserves cannot be run profitably. The government would rather free gold imports than revive this unit. It prefers handing over the reserves to some private company.

Earlier there were alternative proposals for open cast mining, locomotive industry etc., but none of them were taken up seriously. People opposed open cast mining as it would erase their whole town without a trace. Now a pall of gloom is hanging over the golden city. With no further employment opportunity even for the new generation, and no new industry coming up, and even BGML slowly sinking, the people here are a frustrated lot. There is not much scope for self-employment either, since their indebtedness will keep haunting the workers forever. What the mine workers of KGF need is not only revival of mines, but also a human existence, a hygienic atmosphere to live in, good health care, and better civic amenities, better education and housing, and above all, a secure future.

-- N.Divakar

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