KODERMA, India, Nov 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After watching her sister-in-law and a friend die in a mica mine in eastern India in March this year, 15-year-old Ritika Murmu vowed she would never again pick the mineral and set out to warn others.
“I was picking mica when the debris fell. I went screaming to the village for help,” she said, recalling how her teenage friend died instantly while her sister-in-law died in hospital.
“I will never go back (to the mica mines), never ever again. I tell other children the same thing.”
But while Murmu wanted to talk about the deaths in Amjhar village in Jharkhand state, other family members - including her brother Motilal Murmu whose 25-year-old wife died - denied there had been any fatalities.
For the two deaths were hushed up in a belt of eastern India reliant on mica where illegal mining is often the only way to earn an income, highlighting that people were still dying in mines despite promises by authorities to clean up the sector. A Thomson Reuters Foundation expose in 2016 found children were dying in illegal mines but their deaths covered up with families given “blood money” to be silent and keep producing the mineral used in make-up, car paint and electronics.
The revelation that seven children had died in two months prompted pledges by multinationals sourcing mica from three Indian states to clean up their supply chains, and authorities vowed to accelerate plans to legalize and regulate the sector.
But returning this year to two major mica hubs in Jharkhand state - Koderma and Giridih - the Thomson Reuters Foundation found mining was largely unchecked and that people were continuing to work - and die - in illegal mines.
Police records, local newspaper articles, and interviews with charity workers, officials, and eyewitnesses and relatives revealed 19 deaths in mica mines since 2018 - but only six were reported to the authorities. Three of the dead were children.
While the spotlight on the sector has led to more children going to school, campaigners and police said it had made villagers less likely to report accidents and deaths in a trade they know to be illegal, fearing arrest or losing their income.
The Jharkhand state government said activists recorded five child deaths in mica mines in 2018, but none so far this year.
Several people whose relatives were said to have died mining mica denied the claims made by their communities although local police described a handful of cases where deaths that appeared to be linked to mica were hidden or rebuffed by families.
Earlier this year in Koderma, police officer Tamil Banan was alerted to a dead body found in a mica mine. But by the time his team reached the spot, the body had disappeared and villagers said there was no death or case for authorities to investigate.
Police said they had never taken action against mica pickers but growing awareness of the illegality of the trade had made it far less likely for deaths and accidents to be reported to them.
“That they fear reporting deaths or accidents shows their fear of losing their only source of livelihood,” said Govind Khanal of the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (KSCF), which works with the Jharkhand government to end child labour.
“We are worried about children who continue to (mine mica) and people who are dying,” said Khanal, coordinator at the KSCF.
India is one of the top producers of mica.
Once boasting more than 700 mines with over 20,000 workers, the industry was hit by 1980 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, creating a lucrative black market.
The Jharkhand government is trying to tackle the problem on multiple fronts - whether boosting school enrolment, helping people find jobs or set up businesses to avoid making their children work, or legalising mica mines to improve conditions.
“A lack of alternative livelihood options for parents is leading them to send their children for work in mica mines,” said Amitabh Kaushal, principal secretary of the state government’s department for women and child development.
Kaushal said the KSCF had pulled out about 2,500 child workers from mica mines and enrolled them in schools since 2016.
Two mica blocks in the state which have been tapped by illegal operators - so-called “mica mafias” - are being auctioned to private mining firms in December, officials said.
“We are trying to revive the sector, make legal excavations possible,” said Aboobacker Siddique, secretary at the state’s department of mines and geology. “Many lives depend on it.”
Yet campaigners are concerned by the pace of government reforms and those promised by the Paris-based Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI), which was set up in 2016 to end child labour and improve conditions in Indian mica mines by 2021.
The RMI raised $1.33 million from its corporate members so far this year - 20% short of its 2019 target - to fund projects in 80 villages in India’s mica belt covering Koderma, Giridih in Jharkhand and Nawada in Bihar, said its head Fanny Fremont.
RMI has put children back in schools and connected families to state welfare schemes such as health insurance, she said.
The RMI’s 60 members include cosmetics firm L’Oréal and German drugs and chemical group Merck KGaA but it has no representative from the automobile industry and just one - Philips - from the electronics sector.
Villagers in Jharkhand, who were largely unaware of such promises and projects, saw no alternative to mining mica.
In one village, a group of women sat under a tree one evening next to a pile of mica that they had agreed to sell 10 days earlier at a price of up to 10 rupees ($0.14) per kilogram.
On the world market, mica can fetch up to $1,400 a kilogram.
“Our festivals, clothes ... our lives revolve around mica,” said 26-year-old mica picker, Sunita Devi, clad in a colorful sari. “What will we do without it? There are no jobs here.”
As the sun set one evening in Koderma, the roads connecting mines to villages were dotted with people - including children - walking home, their hands glittering in the dusk from mica dust.
“My father died in a mica mine a few months ago,” said Mohammad Bilal Ansari, 25, who did not report the death.
“I did not complain. Mica is our destiny. This is our work. (Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)