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March 31, 2000
Peaceful protest marks death of a goldmine
Fakir Chand in Bangalore
The millennium year has sounded a death knell for one of the oldest goldmines in the world, with the siren ringing out for the last time in the Kolar Gold Fields or KGF on Friday, about 100 kilometres from Bangalore, the bustling capital of Karnataka.
On the day of reckoning, as the central government has finally decided to abandon the 120-year-old mines for ever from April 1, mining activities ground to a halt at Bharat Gold Mines Limited, a sick public sector enterprise by evening even as the sun was setting.
In protest against the unilateral decision of the government to render them jobless and putting their families to untold hardship thereby, the remaining 4,300 employees had observed a total bandh (bandh = protest marked by closure of commercial and other establishments) in the township, which was peaceful.
According to KGF superintendent of police Malani Krishnamurthy, all shops and commercial establishments downed their shutters earlier in the day in response to the strike call given by the BGML employees. Vehicular traffic in the town, which is home to over 150,000 people, came to a halt.
Contrary to fears of trouble leading to a law and order problem, the situation in the town was peaceful though tense. There were also no reports of violence during the day-long bandh. The police were seen patrolling and manning the entry and exit points of the mines.
Delivering a body-blow to the terrified employees, the Union government had a month ago decided to bring the curtains down on the goldmines as the state-owned company became unviable, what with accumulated losses mounting to Rs 4 billion. The steep drop in gold content at the mines had also added to the woes of the company, making it all the more non-operational.
As a last resort, the workforce had belatedly sought the intervention of the state government to save their jobs. State Industries Minister R V Deshpande assured them recently that he would be taking up the issue with the central government. Alas!
Ironically, it is for the first time in independent India that an entire workforce of a public sector unit is retrenched at one go, of course, with a golden handshake of Rs 200,000 for each of them as part of the Voluntary Retirment Scheme or VRS.
It is a small consolation that the total strength of the workers had dropped to over 4,000 last year from over 10,000 a decade ago. Many of the 'survivors' belong to the third or fourth generation of miners several of whom succumbed to the deadly silicosis that afflicts those who work in dusty mines.
KGF has a record of sorts besides the glitter that is associated with its golden deposits. According to BGML statistical records, perhaps it is the only mine the world over to have a 60km of shafts, connecting about 1,320 kilometres of tunnels that criss-cross the mining area of 8.5 square kilometres.
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