Pandemic drives more people to risk lives in illegal mica mines
Cochin Herald|January - February 2021
When the country went into lockdown last March and Tota Rai lost his cleaning job in the textile hub of Surat, he knew working in the illegal mica mining industry back home was his only option.

Rai, 45, and his three sons - two adults and one teenager - now spend their days scavenging for scraps of the valued mineral used to put the sparkle into make-up and car paint and in electronics to sell to local traders in eastern Jharkhand state.

But as the pandemic drives more families to mica, residents, researchers and campaigners have voiced concerns over failings by the government and private sector to regulate the often fatal trade sourced from abandoned mines and to create other jobs.

An expose in 2016 found children dying in derelict mines in three states with families paid blood money to stay silent, prompting vows by brands to clean up supply chains and authorities to legalize and regulate mica.

Rai said his job as a hostel cleaner paid 5,000 rupees ($68) monthly but now he was fortunate to make 50 rupees a day selling mica gathered outside mines shuttered in the 1980s amid laws to limit deforestation and as alternatives to natural mica emerged. I reached home with great difficulty but there was no other work here, said Rai, who cycled 2,000 km (1,240 miles) over 10 days to return to his village in Giridih, joining the ranks of millions of workers who headed home when COVID-19 struck India. Mica is our only hope to survive ... I just want to be allowed to pick mica, he said by phone from his mud hut in a region where even the roadside soil glitters with the mineral.

Jharkhand's state government said action was underway to legalize the sector but progress had been slower than hoped.

K. Srinivasan, secretary in the Department of Mines and Geology, said a new policy was in the pipeline to initiate mica mining legally in Jharkhand and ensure jobs. We genuinely want to solve the problem, he said.

India is one of the world's top producers of mica.

Once boasting more than 700 mines with over 20,000 workers, the industry was hit by 1980s legislation to limit deforestation and the discovery of substitutes for natural mica - forcing most mines to close due to cost and stringent environmental rules.

But renewed interest in mica from China's economic boom and a global craze for natural cosmetics saw illegal operators reopen abandoned mines in recent years, creating a lucrative black market but sometimes with tragic results.

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