September 13, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Gita Aravamudan

The metal board arching over the shaft entrance was so rusted, I could barely make out the lettering -- Champion Reefs. Once upon a time a forbidden place, now the gate stood wide open, hanging on a couple of broken hinges. The security guard standing near the opposite building saw my camera and beckoned to me to go right in. It was traumatic. No pass. No safety helmet. No smell of dust and ore. And not a miner in sight.

The Kolar Gold Fields. Once upon a time a dream town, with picture perfect houses and lawns and big shady trees. Miners streaming out of the shafts, dark with the dust of the underground, talking to each other about mundane everyday things: debts and marriages and children and wives. Where ore-laden trolleys rattled along between the shafts and the processing units. Where the 'oostle' (siren whistle) regimented the lives of the people and giant hoists lowered men into the belly of the earth. Where the rumble of rock bursts deep underground cracked walls and men died a thousand deaths in search of the precious yellow metal.

But now, everything stood still. Eerily silent. The mines were officially closed. Dead. Deader than dead. I had just driven past rows of once-majestic bungalows crumbling into dust. And now this. A shaft head bereft of miners. As I hesitated near the shaft entrance, the guard urged me on. "Go right in. There is nothing there. Nothing."

Inside, the giant hoists stood still. The thick black cables which once lifted the cages laden with men and ore were missing. They had been brought all the way from England over a hundred years ago. Now they lay coiled up in some unknown warehouse. The machinery was gone too. Even the wagons were missing. Thorny bushes were beginning to grow on the mud floor trodden flat by the feet of generations of miners.

I was listening to the stories of the silence when I heard the rattling. A big, rumbling sound as if some machinery was working. The guard had said there was nothing. And there was nothing. Nothing seemed to move. There was that rumbling again. Ghosts?

Terrified, I was about to run out. And then, I saw them. The monkeys. Lots and lots of monkeys. Families playing on the hoists. Climbing those tall metal girders. Jumping on the zinc sheet covering. And I heard the wind. The famous gusty KGF wind rattling the zinc sheets.

Once upon a time, barely 150 years ago, the wind had blown unchecked across this barren, thorny plateau. No one lived then on this rocky, waterless, unarable land.

But that was just a phase. It had not always been so. Legend goes that hundreds of years earlier, during the reign of the Cheras, a poor shepherd walking on this rocky plateau stumbled upon a treasure large enough to make him a king. He called his kingdom Kolar. Nobody knows what happened to that kingdom. And what was that treasure? Was it gold? Was it buried treasure? No one knows that either.

It has been proven, though, that there were ancient gold mines in this area. The first recorded reference to these 'native' mines came in 77 AD when the Roman historian Pliny wandered through this land and found signs of mining. He wrote about ancient abandoned pits, as deep as 200 feet. He found basic digging tools and pots for carrying the ore.

No one, however, attempted to work these pits again and so another 1,800 years rolled by. The barren land remained untouched. Then, in the 1870s, an adventurous British soldier named Lavelle was posted in the Bangalore cantonment, barely a hundred kilometres away. He had heard of the old native mines and was convinced there were rich veins of gold running through the land. He managed to get a couple of army bigwigs to pool in money and form a consortium, which in turn leased the land from the Maharaja of Mysore to whom it belonged.

But gold didn't come out of the earth so easily. For several years, they dug in vain. Finally, they hired the famous John Taylor and Company which had been responsible for finding gold in Africa.

The rest is history. Rich veins of gold were struck in Marikuppam in 1880. By 1883, there were four shafts. The landscape changed rapidly. Colonial bungalows with colourful gardens, club houses, hospitals, schools and long rows of huts for the labourers mushroomed over the next couple of years. The shafts sprang up like needles as more and more veins were struck.

By the 1920s, when the mining industry was at its peak, KGF occupied 30 square miles and supported a population of 90,000 people. Of these, 24,000 were employed by the mines; 400 employees were European and 400 were Anglo-Indian. The rest were 'native' labourers, social and economic outcasts drawn from neighbouring Tamil and Telugu areas.

Life in the mines was hazardous. A 1928 health report says there were four to 14 families living in each of the two-roomed huts provided by the company for the labourers. The miners worked in the cavernous underground passages, wearing flimsy hats made of bamboo and carrying oil lamps to light their way. Temperatures often touched 67 degrees C. It was literally like working in hell.

And yet, life was comfortable. KGF got power as soon as the first power station was opened. The local government, whose exchequer was considerably fattened with the royalty paid by the British company, was eager to keep the mines going.

By 1901, gold production was peaking. Between 1901 and 1910, the grade quality of the ore averaged at nearly 30 grams per tonne. In some years, it even peaked to 40 GPT. In those 10 years, over 170,000 kg of gold was extracted, all of which went directly to England.

The years rolled by. The Indian Independence movement left this little town untouched. Only in 1956 did the government decided to nationalise the mines. By this time, the GPT had dropped to 10. The mines were depleted, but there was plenty of gold still left. Some of the shafts were the deepest in the world and they were still being worked.

The ever-growing gray dumps of powdered ore bore testimony to the extent to which the mines had been worked. Workers grumbled about the hard life and health hazards. But they knew no other life. By the 1960s, most of the men and women who lived in KGF had been born and brought up there. They had developed their own special skills and did not want to live anywhere else. By now, retrenchment was not just a distant nightmare. The veins of ore were getting more and more difficult to find. No one knew what would happen to the miners when they finally petered out.

A factory to manufacture earthmovers was set up on the outskirts of KGF near a big banyan tree, with silver fox bats hanging from its branches, reflecting in the pool located in front of it. But Bharat Earth Movers never really made an impact on the lives of the miners, whose skill sets did not match the factory requirements.

By the 1990s, things were serious. The mines were running at a terrible loss, partly because of the government. The price at which gold was purchased from the mines was much below the market price. Keeping the mines alive had become a more and more unviable proposition. Yet, where was the alternative?

And so came the decline. Retrenchment was the norm. Hiring came to a total stand-still. The huge elegant houses began to decay with neglect. Criminal elements began to take over the little town.

Meanwhile, long time residents tried desperate measures to find alternative solutions. Vincent Abraham, a senior engineer who also handled mine's public relations, speaks of the time they made a survey to see if the dying mines could be turned into a tourist attraction as in South Africa.

The KGF, at 100 kms from Bangalore, is ideally located. The response from the tourism industry was good. The bungalows could be turned into guesthouses and tourists could go down the shafts in 'cages' that were 100 years old. However, New Delhi turned down the suggestion on the grounds that a company which had been constituted to mine for gold could not diversify into tourism. Several similar alternatives were also dismissed.

Foreign companies, which initially expressed interest in working the dumps of mine tailings, later backed out. There was another proposal to start a hosiery unit or somehow try and tap the knitting and embroidery skills of the women, especially the Anglo-Indians.

Nothing worked.

"No one in Delhi cares if the mines are closed or if people die here," said an old-timer bitterly. "No one has even visited this place. They scoff when we talk of the old times. As far as they are concerned, KGF has no historical importance. The people can die. All that matters is that the mines no longer make money."

The last few hundred miners who were left on the rolls when the mines were officially closed have been offered a lay-off package but have gone to court, egged by their union leaders. In KGF itself, many are divided over this issue. Some feel they should take what is given and try and start a new life.

When Medha Patkar came to KGF a few months ago, to lead protest marchers to the Vidhana Soudha (as the government in Karnataka is known), one of the dissidents says he told her KGF was actually the birthplace of activism and they didn't need people from outside coming to teach them to protest. "Look where our protests have led us," he said angrily. According to him, politicians of various hues and of varying degrees of importance have visited KGF and promised to take care of them. But nothing ever materialised.

As a result of this tussle, the last of the miners have been hanging in limbo for months together. No pay. No retrenchment benefits. Just Rs 4,000 released from their own money to help them tide over the present dire crunch. Meanwhile, hundreds of people commute from KGF to Bangalore everyday in search of work. Some of the more fit young men find work with security agencies. Women with basic English education picked up at the convent school work as shop assistants. The money they earn just about helps them to survive.

But, as things deteriorate in their town, they wonder how long they can continue to live there. The company hospital is already closed. The KGF Boys School, once the pride of the mining town, is a ruin. The houses are crumbling as there is no one left to maintain them. The golf course, the club and the open spaces have been taken over by brambles. Desperate for alternate employment, some are talking of forming co-operatives to start sericulture, since silkworm farming has been very successful in neighbouring villages. In order to do so, though, they need government permission to use the land and seed money to start the venture.

Meanwhile, the monkeys take over the shaft heads, brambles swallow the houses and people starve inside the once-famous labour lines. T S Eliot was right. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.

Also see:

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

Design: Rajesh Karkera

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