By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Authorities in eastern India will crack down on "mica mafia" by starting to legalize some mica mines, a senior government official said, after a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation revealed the cover-up of child deaths in illegal mining.
A three-month investigation in the mica-producing state of Jharkhand found that a flourishing black market had resulted in at least seven children being killed since June, mining for the prized mineral which adds the sparkle to make-up and car paint.
But the deaths went unreported as victims' families and mine operators feared it could end the illegal mining of mica, the only source of income in some of India's poorest regions.
Jharkhand's Secretary for Mines Sunil Kumar Barnwal said he was aware of child labor in mica but was taken aback by the number of children dying in the illegal mines estimated to produce 70 percent of India's annual mica output.
He vowed to legalize some mines from early 2017 and take a zero-tolerance approach to local mica mafias - a nexus of businessmen, traders, politicians, police and forest guards - who have profited in the illegal trade by exploiting the poor.
"Anyone, whoever they may be, if they are involved in any kind of illegal activity, they will not be spared - irrespective of any party membership or any government officer," Barnwal said in an interview on Sunday.
"If you legalize the sector, all the illegal interest groups will suffer. The government will take all required steps to make the lives of people there better there."
India is one of the world's largest producers of mica, a silver-coloured, crystalline mineral, that has gained prominence in recent years as an environmentally-friendly material, used in the car and building sectors, electronics and "natural" make-up.
Once boasting over 700 mines, the industry was hit by 1980 legislation to limit deforestation and the invention of synthetic mica, forcing most mines to close.
ALL ABOVE BOARD
But renewed interest in mica has sent illegal operators scurrying to access hundreds of closed, crumbling mines, many in the forests of Jharkhand's Koderma and Giridih districts.
Indian law forbids children below the age of 18 working in mines and other hazardous industries but many families living in extreme poverty rely on children to boost household income.
Barnwal said a raft of measures were needed to address the problem and plans are underway to regulate the state's mica mining sector, saying this would generate revenue, bring development and jobs to these areas, and help curb child labor.
He said the rules for mining mica changed in February when the central government downgraded mica to a minor from a major mineral, giving state authorities the power to grant leases.
Jharkhand is planning to conduct a geological survey to determine the amount of mica reserves, demarcate blocks and start auctioning mining leases within the next six months.
"The whole emphasis on the government and my department will be to grant legal leases and there will be clear ownership and thereafter I don't think these problems will continue," Barnwal said by phone from Ranchi, Jharkhand's capital.
He added that the government was also setting up skill development centers across the state to give people alternative job options such as mechanics or livestock breeding.
"There is a whole solution to all these things. This is to bring this mica mining within our legal framework," said Barnwal, who is also Secretary to Jharkhand's Chief Minister Raghubar Das.
Barwal acknowledged many mica mines are located in protected forests or wildlife sanctuaries and it would be hard to get leases for these areas overseen by the environment ministry.
But he said communities mining in such areas could get work in the newly auctioned mica mines outside the forests, and the state revenue generated bring development and alternative jobs.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)