In the major mica producing states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh child labour rife, with small hands ideal to pick and sort the valued mineral. India is one of the world's largest producers of the silver-coloured, crystalline mineral that has gained prominence in recent years as an environmentally-friendly material, used by major global brands in the car and building sector, electronics and make-up. The recent surge in demand for mica has revived a flagging industry in India that dates back to the late 19th century when the British discovered mica in a belt spanning Jharkhand's Koderma, Giridih and Hazaribag and Bihar's Nawada, Jamui, Gaya and Bhagalpur districts. Once boasting over 700 mines with over 20,000 workers, the industry was hit by 1980 legislation to limit deforestation and the discovery of substitutes for natural mica, forcing most mines to close due to cost and stringent environmental rules. In 2013/14 India only had 38 reporting mica mines, according to India's Bureau of Mines. But renewed interest in mica from China's economic boom and a global craze for "natural" cosmetics has sent illegal operators scurrying to access the hundreds of closed mines in India and created a lucrative black market. Figures from India's Bureau of Mines show the country produced 19,000 tonnes of mica in 2013/14. But the same data shows exports were 128,000 tonnes, with more than half, or 62 percent, going to China followed by Japan, the United States, the Netherlands and France. While the industry is economically unfeasible for some countries due to the need for manual labour, it remains a key earner in India where labour costs are low - particularly when child workers are used. Leading Indian colour and effect pigment maker Sudarshan said experts estimate about 70 percent of mica production in India is from illegal mining in forests and abandoned mines. "We sell the mica to an agent in town, who sells to a big buyer from Kolkata, who exports to China, the United States, Germany and Brazil," said mine operator Dhara Singh, who said he and his brother owned a half dozen unmarked mines in Bhilwara. When asked about the two young girls sorting mica at the site in Bhilwara's Tiloli village, he said they were volunteers.
Dutch campaign group SOMO estimates up to 20,000 children are involved in mica mining in Jharkhand and Bihar. In the depths of India's illegal mica mines, where children as young as five work alongside adults, lurks a dark, hidden secret - the cover-up of child deaths with seven killed in the past two months. Children were not only risking their health by working in abandoned "ghost" mines off official radars, but they were dying in the unregulated, crumbling mines, with seven killed since June. The Thomson Reuters Foundation findings were backed up by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi's child protection group Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) - or Save the Childhood Movement - which documented over 20 mica-related deaths in June - including that of Madan and two other children - double the monthly average. BBA discovered four children were killed in July.
In the village of Chandwara in Bihar in eastern India, a father's grief laid bare the ugly reality of the illegal mining that accounts for an estimated 70 percent of India's mica output. Vasdev Rai Pratap's 16-year-old son Madan was killed in a mica mine along with two other adult workers in the neighbouring state of Jharkhand on June 23. "I didn't know how dangerous the work in the mines is. Had I known, I would never have let him go," said Pratap."They said it took almost a day to dig out his body after the mine collapsed. They cremated him without telling me. I didn't even see my boy before they set him alight." The mine where Madan was working is illegal. Indian law forbids children below the age of 18 working in mines and other hazardous industries but many families living in extreme poverty rely on children to boost household income. Pratap, like other victims' families and mine operators, has not reported the death, choosing to accept a payment for his loss rather than risk ending the illegal mining on protected forest land that brings income to some of India's poorest areas. The farmer said he was promised a 100,000 rupee ($1,500) payment from the operator of the mine but has yet to receive it. BBA workers, who have been trying to stop child labour in Jharkhand's mica mines for almost a decade, said Madan's death and the six others in the past two months were just the tip of the iceberg, estimating fewer than 10 percent of mica mine deaths are reported to the police. Occupational hazards include head injuries, cuts and abrasions, skin and respiratory infections like silicosis, tuberculosis and asthma - but the risks from mining in poorly maintained, unregulated mines were also proving lethal.
A spokesman for India's Ministry of Mines said safety in mica mines was a matter for state governments who are facing mounting pressure from the mining industry to grant licences to illegal mines. "The central government has no machinery to inspect or control the mines," the spokesman Y.S. Kataria told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Dhanraj Sharma, a commissioner in Rajasthan's Labour Ministry, said he was not aware of child workers in the mines in Bhilwara or "anywhere else in the state". He explained, "Their parents are working in the mines, and the children stay with them. They may be playing there, they may be doing some small things for the parents. That doesn't mean they are working," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A senior official from Jharkhand's labour department, which is responsible for ensuring child labour laws are followed, also said there were no reports of children dying due to mica mining. "Firstly it is a violation of the law of the land if people are mining without any approval and if they are engaging child labour, they committing a double crime," said Principal Secretary of Jharkhand's labour department S.K.G. Rahate.
The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), a government organisation, conducted a fact-finding mission in Jharkhand's Koderma and Giridih districts in June and found children as young as eight years old mining mica. District officials admit child labour is a problem in some mines but say it is restricted to remote pockets where government services and welfare schemes have failed to reach the poor with training in new industries and schooling.
“There are some portions where mica mining is going on and where children are involved, and we're trying to roll out schemes to support families to generate other income such as training in goat breeding, masonry and making pickles," said Uma Shankar Singh, District Collector for Giridih.
"Mine owners say the children aren't working inside the mines, they're outside. That they're just earning a little extra for the family," said Rana Sengupta, chief executive of the non-profit Mine Labour Protection Campaign in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. "But the children have no business being anywhere near the mines, inside or outside. Even adult mine workers aren't safe."
The abuse of workers and threats of violence and intimidation tainting the industry have added to the mounting demand within the industry for the government to intervene to ensure all mines are operated legally while also helping impoverished communities find new sources of income.
Sushila Devi diligently pounds at glinting grey rocks with a hammer, breaking away chunks of mica and tossing them into a large plastic basin. The 40-year-old mother of six has been collecting mica every day for over a decade, yet she - like most other workers - has no idea what it is or its price on the global market. "We don't know what mica is, where it goes and what it is used for. All I know is that if I work hard and collect it, I will get some money," she said, adding that she gathers around 10 kg of the mica daily which earns her 80 rupees ($1). "We take it to a nearby mica dump and the dealer buys it for 8 rupees per kilo. I don't know how much he sells it on for. He would never tell us. Why would he risk losing more profit?"
The mark-up is huge. Mica is bought from miners at a maximum of 25 rupees (40 cents) a kilogram, yet top quality sheet or "ruby" mica sells for up to $2,000 a kilogram, according to USGS data
BBA's Bhushan said he and his workers met with most of the families of those who died in mining accidents in June, and found their only means of survival was this unlicenced mining. "All were poor households who are dependent on mica mining for an income," Bhushan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "They fully understand these places are death traps, but they also realise they have little choice but to go back there the next day. It is essential that authorities address this issue before more children die."
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