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Gold diggers throng closed mines

By Aravind Gowda in Bangalore
November 21, 2006 10:39 IST
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It has been six years since Bharat Gold Mines Ltd closed down mining operations at the Kolar Gold Fields near Bangalore.

However, activity has not completely ceased at the mines, with their having become a haunt for gold diggers.

But that is clandestine stuff. Otherwise, after seeing over 800 tonnes of gold extracted from its bowels over more than a century, Kolar now resembles a ghost town.

Victorian-style bungalows in a shambles, old mining shafts, junk machinery, waste ore dumps, and labour camps with little or no civic amenities make up what was once called "Little England."

To return to wheeling-dealing, organised gangs regularly enter the abandoned underground mines through manually lowered buckets, seeking a fortune.

As a testimony to their illegal activities, several gold merchants and pawn brokers have set up shop in Kolar, which has no other economic activity to fall back on.

The systematic extraction of "gold dust" by gangs is a well-known fact. "It has become easy for people to search for gold since the security cover at the shafts is thin. It takes at least three days to visit the underground mines. We go well-prepared with a sufficient foodstock and flame torches. Sometimes, we return empty-handed," admitted Palaniappan (name changed), a Kolar resident. When luck is on their side, the men return with bags of "gold dust."

"It is processed through a network of sieves to yield gold fines (tiny particles). It is a rigorous and time consuming process," he said.

According to him, there have also been instances of miners "disappearing" after entering the shafts.

However, BGML officials downplay the illegal activity and the absence of security by claiming that "there have been occasions when those trying to enter the mines have been caught."

Life has been a downhill journey for BGML workers ever since the shafts were closed and VRS offers made to miners implemented.

Since 1981, over 25,000 workers have accepted VRS offers, but as many as 3,000 are yet to do so, clutching to the last straw of hope - a case before the Karnataka high court. The court recently directed the Centre to announce a modified VRS scheme for the workers.

At the two mine labourers' camps - Andersonpet and Robertsonpet - which thrived earlier, the conditions are similar to those at shanty towns. Following the closure of the mines, the two colonies were handed over to the municipality. However water, power, health and sanitation facilities are poor due to lack of maintenance.

With no means of livelihood left, most of the miners and their children travel to Bangalore in search of work. At least 3,000 commuters travel to Bangalore every day by the Suvarna Express train.

"We earn daily wages (Rs 80), which are insufficient for a family. Many mine labourers' children have moved to Bangalore permanently. We are hoping that the mines are reopened," said Vadivelu Tangan, a former miner.

But BGML officials dismiss such hopes. "There was a proposal to extract gold from the cyanide waste dumps some time back, but it was dropped. Now we are awaiting court orders to dispose of the machinery. Subsequently, the entire land will be handed over to the state government," they said.
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Aravind Gowda in Bangalore
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