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The Rediff Special/Gita Aravamudan

End of a golden age

E-Mail this feature to a friend When can a town be officially declared dead? Like euthanasia, this is a tricky question with intricate nuances.

For nearly two decades now, the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka have been teetering on the verge of death. Yet, when they were officially declared dead last month, there was a final upsurge of protest.

Distraught miners whose families have lived there for more than four generations insist there is still life in the mines. There may be some unexplored gold-bearing veins inside the world's deepest mines, they say. And until those are discovered, the authorities should at least rework the cyanide dumps made up of the milled remnants of gold-bearing ore. Do something to keep hope alive. For if the mines died, they would have nowhere to go.

The mines have died many deaths before this. Few people know that gold mines existed in this area long before the British arrived. Roman historian Pliny who passed through the region in 77 AD wrote of extensive gold and silver mines.

In the 1850s, an Irish soldier named Lavelle, recuperating in the salubrious Bangalore Cantonment after fighting the Maori war in New Zealand, heard of these "native mines" around Kolar and decided to investigate. He found abandoned pits that sometimes went down to about 250ft and more. He even found foot niches in the mud walls and some ancient mining equipment. There were signs of the wood fires that the miners had used to heat the walls of the pits. But there were no miners and there was no gold. Obviously, even the early miners, having exploited the pits to the limit of their technological capacity, must have declared the mines dead and left.

The second reincarnation of the mines began when Lavelle decided to look for gold. Armed with an exclusive lease from the maharaja of Mysore, he set out prospecting in the rocky hills beyond Kolar. The year was 1875.

Lavelle found nothing. He didn't have the money to carry on, but he was convinced there was plenty of gold to be found. In 1877, he sold his rights to a consortium of rich army bigwigs who floated a private limited company. Over the next couple of years, at least 11 private companies were floated. Most of them gave up and closed shop.

The Mysore Mine Company hired the British engineering firm, John Taylor and Sons, flush with its success in the gold mines of Africa, in 1880. A last-ditch effort was made in 1883 and lo and behold! they struck gold. And what gold! The veins were so rich and extensive that the consortium decided to sink four shafts.

Those were plush years. Everyone now wanted a finger in the pie. The Mysore government, its exchequer considerably fattened by royalties from gold mining, was careful not to antagonise the British prospectors.

Some government officials did have misgivings. A letter from the finance secretary in a Mysore government court file dated 1893 says, "The mining industry is not exactly in the same position as regards the ultimate effect on the wealth of the country as manufacturing or agricultural industries... it will result in a certain amount of wealth being taken out of the country which can never be replaced."

But such qualms were overcome when the British agreed to pay extra royalty, in return for which they were allowed to directly ship out of the country all the gold that they mined.

There were teething problems. The Gold Fields lay in the middle of rocky, unarable, unpopulated land. According to a local legend, Kolar was named after a herdsman who created his own little kingdom in this hostile land after he discovered great buried treasure during the reign of the Cholas. But by the late 1800s, there was no sign of that treasure and there was no local population to speak of.

But the mines needed men. Plenty of them. For mining was a labour-intensive and dangerous job. The locals were reluctant to give up their traditional occupations and enter this profession even though the British were willing to offer them special incentives like housing, schooling, health care and enhanced pay packets. And so, finally, the mines attracted only the desperately poor social and economic outcastes from neighbouring areas who had nothing to lose. They were the drifters who in those early days drifted in and out when they found the going too tough.

Though the Gold Fields lay in the Mysore maharaja's territory, they were on the border with the erstwhile Madras Presidency. The migrant labour came in essentially from neighbouring Tamil-speaking areas. It was an ideal situation as far as the British were concerned and they exploited it as well as they could.

Mining was a new activity. Unlike trading or waging war, it required engineering skill, scientific knowledge. For those willing to take the risk, it promised untold wealth. The Mysore government too was enthusiastic. In fact, one of the first priorities of the hydroelectric project which came up at Sivasamudram at the turn of the century was to supply power to the gold mines.

By the end of the nineteenth century, a brand new British colonial town was in place, complete with sprawling bungalows, clubhouses and gymkhanas. The 'natives' living in the 'coolie lines' serviced the mines as well as the British township. A 1928 health report says there were four to 14 families living in each of these two-roomed huts provided by the company.

The miners worked in the cavernous underground passages, wearing flimsy hats made of wicker baskets and carrying oil lamps to light their way. Temperatures often touched 67C. It was literally like working in hell.

By 1901, gold production was peaking. Between 1901 and 1910, the grade quality of the ore averaged at nearly 30 grammes per tonne (GPT). In some years it even peaked to 40GPT. In those ten years, over 170,000kg of gold was extracted.

In the 1920s, when the mining industry was at its peak, KGF occupied an area of 30 square miles and had a population of 90,000. Of these, 24,000 were employed at the mines. Only 400 of these employees were European and another 400 were Anglo-Indian.

A British journalist visiting KGF in the 1930s was eloquent about the "modern" and progressive township. But conditions underground were bad. Old-timers recall crawling down the shafts, striking matches to light their way. Their bodies burnt with heat as if they were in 'Yamalokam' [hell].

Over the years, however, things improved. The shafts even became air-conditioned. Though miners continued to go down to the bowels of the earth in precarious-looking 'cages', they were now equipped with good helmets and torches.

The Indian independence movement passed the mining town by. Until the mines were nationalised in 1956, the British continued to send their quota of gold 'home' every month. By the time the government of the then Mysore state took over these depleted "holes in the ground", the GPT had come down to less than 10.

The colour of the town changed overnight. The white man abruptly left and the Indian inheritors slid effortlessly into the social structure. Business went on as usual. The mines were depleted, but they still yielded gold. Retrenchment and closure were just threatening words that were bandied about.

Even as early as the 1960s, however, plans were afoot to find alternate employment for the miners. Bharat Earth Movers Limited established a plant that was supposed to ultimately absorb a portion of the large work force that was becoming increasingly redundant. But this never really worked out. By the 1980s, the mines celebrated their centenary and closure looked imminent. And still they dragged on.

But towards the close of the twentieth century, KGF had become a ghost township. The beautiful old bungalows with their once glorious gardens lay in a shambles. The tiny Bethemangalam reservoir, which used to provide the town with plenty of water, became inadequate and water shortage was chronic. The hospitals, schools, swimming pools, clubs and thriving infrastructure put together by the British to suit their tastes and convenience had all disintegrated. And yet people lived and worked inside that shell.

The forefathers of the miners and their families might have drifted in from elsewhere. But now KGF is their ancestral home. And mining their ancestral skill. How can they accept the death of the mines?

The Rediff Specials

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