Mica (locally called Debra) is a flaky natural mineral, with a soft, light, and elegant texture extracted by mining, that adds to the shine of car paints and cosmetic products. It is ground down to produce shiny powders which are found in every product starting from eye shadow to lip gloss to face makeup, a word often hidden on the back of these products. This is because the picking and mining of mica are illegal without permission from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (M/o EFCC). With the mining of Mica stopped completely, the locals, not left with any other alternative, started to illegally collect ‘dhibra’ from the moulds and sell them in local markets.
About 60% of Mica in the world comes from India, especially the eastern states of Bihar and Jharkhand. Two districts: Koderma and Giridih have for years survived on the collection and trade of the highest-quality mica. Penetrating into narrow tunnels and caves is rather easier for kids because it fits them perfectly. Still, with little or no oxygen inside the caves, an estimated 22,000 children work in the mica mines in the states of Jharkhand and Bihar, putting their lives at risk while earning only fifty rupees a day, equivalent to around seventy cents. On the other hand, the wholesalers earn more than a thousand US dollars for a kilogram of good quality mica. Since this entire activity is unlawful, neither are the labour regulations followed, any suitable remunerations provided, nor any significant steps ever made to alleviate the health risks. This exemplifies the horrendous exploitation of labour in the mines.
Types of Mica?
The global market for which classifies it into two main categories: natural mica, which occurs naturally in igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphous rocks and is mined underground, and synthetic mica, which is artificially produced by heating certain raw materials and crystallizing them into slow cooling.
Child Labour and exploitation
With the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, the Government banned the act of mining due to the widespread and rapid degradation of forest land in the country because of large-scale mining of various minerals such as coal and iron, particularly in Bihar and Jharkhand. Subsequently, the mines were closed or abandoned, leading to the current phenomenon of illegal mining. Most families that live near these mines, do not have access to alternative employment opportunities. Therefore, they send their children in order to earn a possible source of income. Mostly, all the members of the family join them to the mine to barely make 150 INR a day.
The entire employment not only renders exploitation but also results in deaths. An official report suggested that seven children died in two months, overworking to earn their ‘blood money’. Overall, Police records, local newspaper articles, and interviews with charity workers, officials, eyewitnesses, and relatives revealed a total of 19 deaths in mica mines since 2018, of which, three were children. Despite the local government’s promises to ameliorate their conditions and prepare the kid for their education, the lack of industrialization, illiteracy, lack of schools, backward topography, and many other factors bar the natives from an alternative source of income.
The threats to the miners include tunnels collapsing down, landslides, snake and scorpion bites, and health hazards like pneumonia, asthma, tuberculosis, skin infection, respiratory infection, head injury, fibrosis, shortness of breath, etc. In fact, some reports suggest, prolonged exposure to substances like quartz and mica, without any protective equipment can cause lung-related diseases and even cancer.
What do the Indian laws say?
As the Atharva Veda says: “Oh, Earth, whatever we dig out from you must have to be filled up again and restored as fast as possible. Oh, pure one, we do not intend to hit you at your heart of hearts.” To combat illegal mining and protect the forest Heritage, India not only has corporate Article 48A, which states, “The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country”, but also has enacted the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, that prohibits mining, considering India’s increasing deforestation and concerning environmental consequences. Apart from this, India has several laws prohibiting illegal mining, labour, and exploitation:
(i) Article 23 and 24 of the Indian constitution safeguards the citizens from trafficking, begar, and forced labour; and prohibit the employment of any child below 14 years of age in a factory or any other hazardous workplace, respectively. This suggests that, as per Article 24, the employment of any children who work in the mica mines, which is also quite a hazardous activity, is illegitimate. Art 23, as it goes, forced labour is an illegal activity. However, in the mines, labour is always not forced and is mostly compelled due to a lack of alternative sources.
(ii) Labour laws like the Industrial Relations Code Bill, 2020, Code on Social Security Bill,2020, Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code Bill,2020 (OSHWC code), the Industrial disputes Act 1947, Factories Act 1948, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976, Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, and so on, clearly prohibit any form of Bonded or forced labour and child labour in India. In addition, there are several conventions of ILO (International Labour Organisation) and the United Nations, prohibiting the same, of which India is a signatory. All these legislations and conventions are truly in the spirit of support for the working classes. But they are again hardly implemented when it comes to reality. Even after the awareness got spread globally, no petition was filed before the court nullifying the activities as illegal.
(iii) Various central government regulations like the Mines Act 1952, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act 1957 (MMDR), and the National Mineral Policy of 2019, govern the mica ecosystem. Under the MMDR Act, the activity of mining without the permission of the government is made illegal. Only certain areas are allowed to be mined, for certain minerals. Moreover, the activities shouldn’t be performed by any child below the age of 14 years, since the job is quite hazardous.
An alternative way
In an extra-practical situation, every law and enactment is non-existent, when it comes to profits and business. The miners, compelled to mine in the regions are too illiterate ad naive to enforce their rights. However, in the last decade, the media has played a major role. Six years ago, the harsh working conditions of the mica miners in Jharkhand, were documented by RT Documentary, a Russian YouTube channel, following a train of media professionals streaming the story worldwide. Moreover, some Local Communities and Civil Society Organisations have also been instrumental in working at the grassroots level. Even though these have not been successful in educating the masses about their rights, a new era of solutions has come up into the picture. A cosmetic company, Lush, in spite of terminating the use of mica in their products, introduced the use of ‘synthetic mica’ in their products, which is apparently both environment-friendly and saves child labour. The replacement of synthetic mica with natural mica is suggested as one of the best ways of curbing child labour and human rights violence.
Some have also raised the idea of legalizing the mining of mica as a solution to end the menace of child labour. According to the mines’ commissioner of Jharkhand, Aboobacker Siddique, “the process of legalizing the industry will start with authorities selling off dumps of scrap mica, which people were taking illegally. Around 100 have been identified. The government will then focus on auctioning off old mica mines and other reserves for mining.” “It could ensure, for example, that adults are earning fair wages and are able to work in safe and healthy conditions; they would have the opportunity to improve their living conditions so the children could go to school instead of working in the mines,” said Fanny Frémont, the Executive Director of Responsible Mica Initiative(RMI), a non-governmental organization established to generate free and fair trade in mica by obliterating and fighting child labour and human rights violence.
The Mines in Jharkhand, especially Koderma and Girdih bring about millions of profits to businesses spread across the globe. And, in spite of a plethora of measures taken by the Indian government theoretically, the workers are poverty-stricken and live under very poor socio-economic conditions, with no infrastructure, food, education, sanitation, and so on. Because there are no other alternative sources of livelihood, they are forced into the dark caves for mining and other hazardous activities. To secure their source of earning, they send their kids to face the catastrophic conditions there. However, the last decade has seen a lot of positive developments in the fact that this news was spread across the globe. Yet, no actual development has happened yet. During the pandemic in 2020, following China’s economic boom and global demand for cosmetic products, illegal operators reopened the abandoned mines, producing a bankable black market for mica. Therefore, in spite of a plethora of non-governmental initiatives and government encouragement, there is still a long way to go before the shine of the mica lightens up the lives of the children living in Koderma and Giridih.
Author(s) Name: Pratyasha Chakraborty (ILS Law College, Pune under SPPU)