THE lives of miners are stained red with the dust from "red gold", as some rightly call iron ore. Feet, hands, faces; even the makeshift blue tents they squeeze into at night are covered with red dust from the pockmarked land they work on, the rock they haul up, and the iron basins that scoop the ore.
According to a report released in 2005 by Mines, Minerals & People in collaboration with other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), roughly 40,000 daily wage labourers work in Bellary-Hospet's iron ore mines, half of them children under the age of 14. Migrants from a decimated agricultural sector, they float from mining plot to mining plot searching for sustenance in an informal system of contract labour.
The work is monotonous, but it pays. Miners dig lumps of iron ore from the ground, pulverise them with hammers, and filter the resulting pile. A family of five working 12 hours a day can earn a consistent Rs.800 a week doing this, Rs.7 for every putti (iron basin) they manage to fill. A paltry sum? Not when contrasted with the Rs.30 to Rs.50 a day they earn in agriculture, when they can find work at all.
Given these wage differentials, it is no surprise that nearly all the mineworkers say they support iron ore mining in Bellary. But K. Bhanumathi of Mines, Minerals & People, argues that this preference has to be seen in the context of deprivation. "It's not that the workers want mining, it's just that they need some means to survive," she says. "Given a choice they would never opt for this kind of work."
Conditions in the mines back her argument. The workers have no running water to fight the sun, no masks to filter the suffocating dust, and only basic medical care to take care of smashed fingers and cuts from errant shards of flying rock.
The most helpless in this system are the children. Brought to the mines by parents who have nowhere else to put them, many end up working themselves. Local NGOs such as Don Bosco-Centre for Social Action and Shree Vinakaya Education and Rural Development have set up schools to get the children out of the mines. But parents do not like to leave their children at residential schools, and the 22 tent schools that NGOs have set up on or near mining plots have so far attracted only 1,300 children. While they may succeed in some cases, ultimately the schools cannot compete with the force of the labour market. "They migrate from one place to another," says Vishala, a teacher in one of the Don Bosco schools. "If some contractor pays their parents more, they'll move to that plot."
The district administration no longer denies the existence of child labour in the iron ore mines, but its understanding of the nature and scope of the problem still falls short of reality. "Some of them get involved in the minor work of picking up pebbles or something like that," says Deputy Commissioner Arvind Shrivastava, who puts the number of children working in mines at 1,500.
On a trip to Jambunatha Road outside Hospet, this writer saw at least half that many children, most of whom ran from the ore piles where they were working to the tent schools as soon as they saw cameras and notebooks. Others who have attempted to document the problem accurately have reported similar incidents. While the government has begun contributing funds and textbooks to the tent schools, it appears that the schools themselves may in fact be helping to mask the extent of the problem even further.
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