BHUBANESWAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Authorities in eastern India have begun the process of legalizing mica mining, a senior government official said on Thursday, after a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation last year uncovered the deaths of children working in illegal mines.
A three-month investigation in the mica-producing state of Jharkhand in August found at least seven children had died in just two months in illegal mines - as they picked and sorted the prized mineral which adds the sparkle to make-up and car paint.
The deaths however went unreported as victims' families and mine operators feared it could end illegal mining of mica, an important source of income in some of India's poorest regions.
Child rights experts say legalizing the mining of mica will allow the sector to be regulated, root out child labor, and ensure better wages and conditions for mine workers.
Jharkhand's mines commissioner, Aboobacker Siddique, said authorities first planned to sell off dumps of scrap mica and would then focus on auctioning off old mica mines and other reserves for mining. Many children work with their parents working in the dumps and in old mines collecting the mineral.
"We have issued a tender notice on Wednesday for auctioning of mica dumps. These are waste dumps of the old mica mines which is called 'dhibra' which is low-quality flakes of mica," Siddique said by phone from Ranchi, Jharkhand's capital.
"People were taking up these scraps illegally and accumulating and selling it. To stop this, we decided to remove the waste dumps of the mica by selling it in auctions."
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 legal mines, the industry was hit by 1980 legislation to limit deforestation and the invention of synthetic mica, forcing most mines to close.
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.
Following the Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation in August, Jharkhand's labor department announced an inquiry.
The findings submitted earlier this month said illegal mica mining was the main source of income for local people and confirmed some workers had died due to collapsing mines. However, it found no evidence of child deaths.
Labor officials, however, said they had launched a public awareness campaign across the state to stop child labor and had rescued around 250 children working in places such as small shops and restaurants.
Siddique said around 100 mica dumps had been identified for auction. Once these had been sold, "ghost" mines and fresh reserves of mica would be put up for auction. He did not specify a time-frame.
(Reporting by Jatindra Dash @DashJatin, Editing by Nita Bhalla and Ros Russell Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)