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May 6, 2000


It's not just the mines that teeter on the verge of extinction

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Gita Aravamudan in Bangalore

When can a town be officially declared dead? Like euthanasia, this is a tricky question with intricate nuances.

For nearly two decades now, the Kolar Gold Fields, or KGF, in Karnataka have been teetering on the verge of death. Yet, when they were officially declared dead last month, there was a last and final upsurge of protest.

Distraught miners, whose families have lived there for more than four generations, insist there is still some life in the mines.

There may be some unexplored gold-bearing veins inside the world's deepest mines, they say. And, until those are discovered, the authorities should at least rework the cyanide dumps made up of the milled remnants of gold-bearing ore.

Or do something to keep hope alive. For, if the mines died, they would have nowhere to go.

The mines have died many deaths before this. Few people know that gold mines existed in this area long before the British arrived. Roman historian Pliny who passed through here in 77AD wrote of extensive gold and silver mines.

In the 1850s, an Irish soldier named Lavelle, while recuperating in the salubrious Bangalore Cantonment, after fighting the Maori war in New Zealand, heard of these "native mines" around Kolar and decided to investigate.

He found abandoned pits that sometimes went down to about 250 feet and more. He even found foot niches in the mud walls and some ancient mining equipment. There were signs of the wood fires that the miners had used for heating the walls of the pits.

But, there were no miners and no gold.

Obviously, even the early miners, having exploited the pits to the limit of their technological capacity, must have declared the mines dead and left.

The next re-incarnation of the mines began when Lavelle decided to look for gold himself. Armed with a lease for exclusive prospecting rights from the Maharaja of Mysore he set out prospecting in the rocky hills beyond Kolar. The year was 1875.

Lavelle found nothing. He did not have the money to carry on, but he was convinced there was plenty of gold to be found.

In1877, he sold his rights to a consortium of rich army big wigs who floated a private limited company. Over the next couple of years, at least eleven private companies were floated. Most of them gave up and closed shop.

The Mysore Mine Company hired the British engineering firm John Taylor and Sons flush with its success in the gold mines of Africa, in 1880. A last ditch effort was made in 1883. And behold, they struck gold! The veins were so rich and extensive that the consortium decided to sink four shafts.

Those were plush years. Everyone now wanted a finger in the pie. The Mysore government, its exchequer considerably fattened by royalties from gold mining was careful not to antagonise the British prospectors.

Some government officials, however, did have misgivings. A letter from the finance secretary in the Mysore government court file dated 1893 says, "…the mining industry is not exactly in the same position as regards the ultimate effect on the wealth of the country as manufacturing or agricultural industries. It will result in a certain amount of wealth being taken out of the country which can never be replaced."

But such qualms were overcome when the British agreed to pay extra royalty, in return for which they were allowed to directly ship out of the country all the gold that they mined.

There were teething problems. The Gold Fields lay in the middle of rocky, unarable, unpopulated land.

According to a local legend, Kolar was named after a herdsman who created his own little kingdom in this hostile land after he discovered great buried treasure during the reign of the Cholas.

By the late 1800s, there was no sign of that treasure and there was no local population to speak of. But, the mines needed men. Plenty of them. For, mining was a labour intensive and dangerous job.

The locals were reluctant to give up their traditional occupations and enter this risky profession even though the British were willing to offer them special incentives like housing, schooling, health care and enhanced pay packets.

And so, finally, the mines attracted only the desperately poor social and economic outcastes from neighbouring areas who had nothing to lose. They were the drifters who in those early days drifted in and out when they found the going too tough.

Though the Gold Fields lay in the Mysore Maharaja's territory, they were on the border. The migrant labour came in essentially from neighbouring Tamil speaking areas. It was an ideal situation as far as the British were concerned and they exploited it as well as they could.

Mining was a new activity. Unlike trading or waging war, it required engineering skill, scientific knowledge. For those willing to take the risk, it promised untold wealth.

The Mysore government too was enthusiastic. In fact, one of the first priorities of the hydroelectric project which came up at Sivasamudram at the turn of the century was to supply power to the gold mines.

By the end of the nineteenth century, a brand new British colonial town was in place, complete with sprawling bungalows, clubhouses and gymkhanas.

The 'natives' living in the 'coolie lines' serviced the mines as well as the British Township. A 1928 health report says there were four to fourteen families living in each of these two-roomed huts provided by the company.

The miners worked in the cavernous underground passages, wearing flimsy hats made of basket and carrying oil lamps to light their way.

Temperatures often touched 67C. It was literally like working in hell.

By 1901, gold production was peaking. Between 1901 and 1910, the grade quality of the ore averaged at nearly 30 grammes per tonne, or GPT. In some years it even peaked to 40 GPT.

In those ten years over 170,000 kg of gold was extracted.

In the 1920s, when the mining industry was at its peak, KGF occupied 30 square miles and had a population of 90,000. Of these 24,000 were occupied in the mines. Only 400 of these employees were European and another 400 were Anglo-Indian.

A British journalist visiting KGF in the 1930s was eloquent about the 'modern' and progressive township.

But conditions underground were pretty bad. Old timers recall crawling down the shafts, striking matches to illuminate their way. Their bodies burnt with heat as if they were in 'Yamalokam'.

Over the years things improved. The shafts became air-conditioned. Though miners continued to go down to the bowels of the earth in precarious looking "cages", they were now equipped with good helmets and torches.

The Indian independence movement passed the mining town by. Until the mines were nationalised in 1956, the British continued to send their quota of gold 'home' every month.

By the time the Mysore Government took over these depleted 'holes in the ground', the GPT was less than 10. The colour of the town changed overnight. The white man abruptly left and the Indian inheritors slid effortlessly into the social structure.

Business went on as usual. The mines were depleted, but they still yielded gold. Retrenchment and closure were just threatening words that were bandied about.

Even as early as the 1960s, however, plans were afoot to find alternate employment for the miners. Bharat Earth Movers, or BEML, established a plant that was supposed to ultimately absorb a portion of the large workforce that was becoming increasingly redundant. This never really worked out.

By the 1980s, the mines celebrated their centenary and closure looked imminent. And still they dragged on.

By the end of the twentieth century, KGF had become a ghost township. The beautiful old bungalows with their once glorious gardens lay in shambles.

The tiny Bethemangalam reservoir, which used to provide the town with plenty of water, became totally inadequate and water shortage was chronic.

The hospitals, the schools, the swimming pools, the clubs and the thriving infrastructure put together by the British to suit their taste and convenience had all disintegrated.

And yet people lived and worked inside that shell.

As for the miners and the families their forefathers might have drifted in from elsewhere. But, now KGF is their ancestral home. And mining their ancestral skill. How can they accept the death of the mines?


Kolar gold mine workers appeal to PM, seek longer lease of life for mine

Peaceful protest marks death of a goldmine


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