Kolar Gold Fields residents don’t share the euphoria of politicians or cooperatives that claim to represent them

Tall iron skeletons of the abandoned mining shafts, rusted and crumbling in most parts, dominate the skyline of what today, 12 years since the mines were shut, is no more than a ghost town. But in the past week, swanky-fresh flex boards and posters have sprung up in street corners and on abandoned mine walls, screaming: “Thanks, Thanks, Thanks! Mr. Muniyappa! Our mines will be back”.

The protagonist of these posters, Union Minister of State for Micro, Small and Medium Industries K.H. Muniyappa is seen in meeting with top Congress leaders; captions suggest he was working at the “historic decision” to reopen the mines. The ‘decision’, that’s once again rekindled talks of a revival here, is last week’s Supreme Court order that gives the Union government the go-ahead to float a global tender inviting private companies to restart operations in KGF, quashing a 2010 Karnataka High Court Division Bench order directing the government to revive the state-run Bharat Gold Mines Ltd (BGML).

The issue of BGML’s closure and revival has always been political, one that sparks off intense debate every election — while the mines were declared wholly unprofitable and closed by the BJP-led NDA in 2001; the Congress-led UPA has claimed it is pushing for revival by facilitating a buy-over by multinational mining players. The Left unions, which once wielded significant clout over this working class town, have fought for the government to take over the mines and reassess the profitability of mining gold, given the yellow metal has become at least ten-fold more valuable that in was at the time of closure. Incidentally, India is the largest importer of gold.

Former mine workers and residents say that politicians and cooperative societies (that claim to represent BGML workers) have promised that the mines will start by March 2014. Eagerly awaiting their VRS (Voluntary Retirement Scheme) settlements, the over 3,500 former mine workers hope that the private company that takes over will not delay the settling of dues worth Rs. 52 crore. But most of all, they hope jobs will return to their town, and the young and old can stop travelling over four hours a day to Bangalore for daily-wage jobs.

On a visit to KGF this week, this reporter found that a former mine worker was hard to come by. All of them are in Bangalore, working from dawn to dusk, mostly in construction or manual labour, explains Adiseshan (65), a former mine worker who now runs a petty shop here. Tracing the map of the over 12,500-acre area owned by BGML on his palm, he explains how every facility starting from government clinics and hospitals to schools have simply been shut down. “With the mines went our support system. And the Australian company [it is widely believed here the deal will be bagged by Australian mining firm Kolar Golds] won't provide all this. They have no obligation to do so.”

Manavalan (50), who worked with BGML’s transport department, says the mines closed “due to mismanagement, rather than profitability issues.” “Now, the high gold prices present them an opportunity to right their wrongs, but they shy away. Under the old BGML, we had subsidised rations, free medical care and education. Will that return?” he asks.

Cooperatives’ role

He adds he is skeptical of the role cooperative societies are playing in the whole affair. “All of them claim to represent us. Their role should be to help us get a good deal, not help one foreign company or the other.” There are at least five cooperative societies that represent former miners, and given the courts have granted them first right of refusal in the bidding process, most of them are angling for a greater role in the takeover.

Jaydevan (62), who was laid off in 2000 before closure, says that workers have been demanding that the 5,000 workers who were on the rolls when the closure was first notified should be given jobs, or their children should be offered employment.

The BGML, which employed up to 20,000 in the nineties, had around 3,500 employees at the time of closure. According to three parliamentary committees, the last one at the time of closure, there is substantial gold reserve in KGF, says V.J.K. Nair of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. Additionally, the 'tail-dumps' (huge ubiquitous mountains of waste from the gold mining process) also contain residual gold; estimates on just about how much gold the dumps hold ranges from 15 to 40 tonnes. The mines itself require substantial investments in removing the water, a process that will require both time and money.

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