From dust to dust
Kolar Gold Fields (Karnataka):

Besides gold, the Kolar Gold Fields area has produced a unique society, perhaps the most secular and egalitarian space in the country in many ways. Enduring the hardships of pioneer life, the miners have produced Rs. 45,000 crores in wealth for others. Yet they, and the community around them, face destitution and disintegration, for the Government is determined to close the mines, says noted journalist P. SAINATH.

IT is where Krishna Prasad can be the son of David Winston Benjamin. Or where Harry Walter is recorded as the offspring of Anbazhagan. Where a Tamil family from Arcot will claim progeny who could be Telugu or Kannadiga.

Welcome to the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), Karnataka. A region that holds what could be India's most egalitarian, secular and multi- religious culture.

At one level, it is a common enough practice. Especially among public sector units (PSUs). The son or daughter of a retiring employee gets a job at the same factory. That happens across the country.

What makes the KGF different then? Here the community goes further in looking after its own. What if Benjamin, who is to retire soon, has no children? Or if Anbazhagan's son has a job in Bangalore and does not to want to toil beneath the earth's surface for a living? Well, Lakshman Prasad's boy could do with a job. And so what if his father was not actually a miner? He was still "one of us". His family is in a crisis. Let us talk to Benjamin about it.

And the retiring miners, the Benjamins or Anbazhagans, are very willing. They too feel a responsibility towards the larger community. So a Christian father can send in a Hindu "son" or vice-versa. As the "son" of a miner, the applicant has a far better chance of landing a job. It has been going on for decades.

But the mainly Tamil miners here have one thing in common with the few Andhras, Kannadigas and Malayalees who work here. This egalitarian culture was built around a work force that was, and is, overwhelmingly dalit. Built through huge struggles for survival that shaped class consciousness in this region. A culture that is, in many ways, unique.

But one that is today fighting for its very existence.

For well over a decade now, successive Governments have been trying to shut down the Bharat Gold Mines Limited (BGML). Oddly, this has happened in a situation where per worker productivity has risen. Where the veins of gold have not quite run out. Where large seams remain unexplored. Where the workers are perhaps the lowest paid for any public sector unit in the country. Where a single region has produced a precious metal worth Rs. 45,000 crores over the years. Where the Legislative Assembly of Karnataka passed a unanimous resolution appealing to the Centre not to close down the mines but to try and revive them.

The battles are still on, though the Union Government declared that the loss-making mines would simply cease to exist by the end of May. Many insist the losses were management and Government- inflicted. Some say consciously inflicted. At any rate, the losses of Rs. 300 crores are far less than that of other units in the country where there has been no talk of closure.

In management lingo here, those who did not opt for "voluntary" retirement by May 31 faced retrenchment. The workers, however, fought back. Their resistance has forced the BGML to withdraw its notice filed before the Chief Labour Commissioner seeking permission to wind up.

But then the miners of the KGF have always functioned in a system of high exploitation. Earlier, under the old British owners in the former Mysore State. Subsequently, under the Indian state.

"My father worked here for six annas - around 36 paise - a day," says A. Kasi. A miner who retired a foreman at the "Edgar Shaft" in 1989, Kasi says, "almost all the men in my family worked in the mines. My father dug tunnels after coming here in 1927. Our people were from North Arcot in Tamil Nadu. Some earned as little as 25 paise a day. Those who worked the machines got 13 annas. They lived in those eight-foot by eight-foot hovels that you have seen. Sometimes three to four families stayed in one such 'house'. It was only in 1948 that the idea of one family to one house was accepted. That was after the strike in 1946 led by Communist leaders of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) like Vasan and Govindan. Six miners died when the British masters resorted to firing in that strike."

The pay was wretched and work conditions worse. Surveys from the 1930s show that 48 out of 50 families studied were deeply in debt. The debt of each family was, on average, over six times its monthly income.

John Taylor and Sons was the entity that exploited the mines from the 1880s to 1956. The British company needed to see that miners from Tamil Nadu did not "escape". The Tamils saw their work here as temporary. Even if they did not always return home, they felt they had a right to do so. However, John Taylor's mines demanded their dirt-cheap labour.

"The older generations had to wear a metal bracelet saying 'John Taylor and Sons' on the left hand," says S. M. Irchappan. A miner who worked here from 1949 till he retired in 1988, he says "it was very tight. It had a mine name and number on it. Anyone trying to 'run away', switch mines or the like, was traced on this basis. The workers hated the practice but it was forced on them."

So much for Raj nostalgia.

Kasi and Irchappan believe the practice declined by the late 1920s. Mainly due to miner protests. It would surely have had to go by 1930. In that year, 16,000 workers went on a huge 24-day strike. It was sparked off by their resistance to being finger- printed by the mine bosses. Police fired at the workers and 44 were injured. The Dewan of Mysore had to intervene. The "Labour Registry Office" the workers objected to was abolished and the strike ended.

"In the early days," says Kasi, "we were not given petromax lamps. Not even when they came into vogue. We had to make do with candles and the carbon light. The company did nothing for us that would cost them a paisa."

Not even in the field of education. Both Kasi and Irchappan dropped out of standard four. Even today, decades after freedom, the needs of officers' children are met. Not those of the workers' children. The English-medium schools officers' children go to are up to the SSLC level. Those used by the workers' children stop at middle school. They were, after all, only meant to be cheap labour.

"There were whole generations of miners in the old days who never saw the sun," says veteran trade unionist K. Savaridoss of the Central Industrial Trade Union (CITU). "The work day was 12 hours till 1946. Most men were contract workers using candles and hand drills. They went in before dawn and came out after dusk. There was no electricity for much of the mine's existence. Not for the workers, anyway."

Odd, since Kolar was the first part of old Mysore to get electricity. And that was very early, around 1902. "That is true," says Savaridoss. "But the power was for the establishment above. Not for the miners down below. Their safety was not a priority. Power was taken to the mines, but only for the main places and for hoisting the workers up and down. Not for their personal needs."

Hundreds of miners died in those conditions. In deadly rockbursts in the 1920s and 1930s. Quite a few were buried alive. Many succumbed to disease and the unsanitary conditions. Flooding and other accidents claimed still more lives.

Some mining had taken place in the time of Tipu Sultan. Earlier too, but at a rather primitive level. Organised mining began with John Taylor and Sons in the 1880s. "Most of the workers came from North Arcot in Tamil Nadu," says T.S. Mani, a workers leader and ex-MLA of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - CPI(M). "They also came from Dharmapuri and Salem districts of that State. A few came from Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. But these were relatively few in number." All were mostly dalits; landless labourers who often stayed on as permanent settlers.

The mines started with a very small number of people that reached a peak in 1940. That year, there were close to 35,000 workers, with 60 per cent of them holding jobs that required that they work beneath the ground. In 1956 the State of Mysore took over the company from John Taylor. Six years later, the Government of India acquired it to form the Kolar Gold Mines Undertaking. In 1972, it launched the present BGML as a corporate entity.

Post-Independence, work conditions saw a relative improvement. The operative word, though, is relative. Pay remained quite pathetic.

"Till April 1972, an unskilled worker got Rs. 1.25 to Rs. 1.50 a day," says CITU's Savaridoss. "This was up from 25 paise in the 1930s and 50 paise in the 1940s."

M.C. Adiseshan laboured 40 years as a miner in the KGF. "And my period was entirely in the post-Independence period," he points out. He worked from 1955 to 1995. "I earned a 'coolie rate' of Rs. 1.25 a day when I began. Annual increments." he laughs, "were five paise" (for the lowest category of workers, increments were just Rs. 10 a year till the 1980s). In 1995, he was 2,600 feet below when a rockburst struck. "It was in the Nandydroog mine. Some 60 tons of ore collapsed on us."

Adiseshan lived but the damage persists. He still cannot move his neck properly. He has not received a single paisa in compensation. And, like many here, gets no pension.

What about medical treatment for the injury? He laughs: "It was free but meaningless. There is nothing worthwhile in our hospital here."

In his 40th working year, he had a basic pay of Rs. 1,350, taking home less than Rs. 4,000. "Those workers covered by pension agreements at all - those joining after 1982 - will get around Rs. 300 a month," he says. "If they and the mines last 30 years, they could get Rs. 500 pension at best." Most will get nothing.

In the mines, the pay slips speak. Many show around 25 years of work and a basic pay of Rs. 1,340. "After 30 years," says Edison, a general foreman officer at the Golconda mine, "you could make Rs. 4,250. And lose Rs. 1,720 of that in deductions." This makes it the only PSU where you can work 40 years and take home less than Rs. 4,000 each month.

These are the people who produced Rs. 45,000 crores worth of gold - for others. There has been no wage revision at all here for over 10 years - in that decade when prices shot up never before.

The strength working people have had here is each other. A crisis in a family is treated as one involving the locality. There are firm bonds and a sense of community that miners everywhere seem to develop. Beyond that is a dalit workforce built around a class rather than a caste identity. And with a strong sense of its own radical and democratic traditions.

Those traditions are now in danger. So is the community itself. Its erosion is clear in the growing turmoil and a fraying of codes. A society that prides itself on the dignity of labour feels its young are being pushed towards crime.

The Government's resolve to kill the mines is proving devastating.

A town so dependent on mining is being squeezed. With workers losing their purchasing power, the small businesses are folding. The KGF block has seen huge migration. Its population dipped by nearly half a lakh this past decade. Every day, thousands commute to Bangalore by train.

Often, to work there for Rs. 800 or Rs. 1,000 a month. (Their monthly train pass costs around Rs. 200). Within the mining community, cheque books with pre-signed cheques rest with moneylenders. Even the pass books of the miners are with their creditors. The little movables they own have been pawned.

The Government remains unmoved. Are the mines of the KGF finally doomed? Are they really "loss-making" as officialdom claims? There is evidence that speaks otherwise.

But that is another story.

(To be continued)

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