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22,000 children risking lives in India's 'illegal' mica mines, 10-20 die each month

By Rajiv Shah
An investigation by a high-profile e-journal run by a top American digital media and entertainment company focused on young women, Refinery 29 (R29), based in the Financial District, Manhattan neighbourhood of New York City, has raised the alarm that 9,000 miles away, nearly 22,000 children are risking their lives while working for a paltry sum of Rs 20 to 30 per day in mica mines of Jharkhand and Bihar.
Titled “The makeup industry’s darkest secret is hiding in your makeup bag”, the 3,800-word investigation by Lexy Lebsack, gives specific examples of those working in these mines, pointing out how Pooja Bhurla, 11, with her friends – some as young as five years old – would spend a whole day “shimmying into small, man-made tunnels”, and “pouring out of holes, their cheeks and clothes caked with glittery dust.”
Prepared with the active support of 2014 Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi’s Children’s Foundation (KSCF) and Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), among others, the report says, these children, armed with ice picks, hammers, and baskets, “carefully chip into the sides and backs of the small pits to loosen rock and dirt before carefully hauling it out of the mine.”
They take turns “dumping their baskets over a rudimentary sifting tool – a large piece of netting with a wooden frame -- that reveals handfuls of mica, a shimmery mineral composite that’s been forming underground for hundreds of years”, the report states.
One of the estimated 22,000 kids that work in the mica mines in Jharkhand and Bihar, the report says, Pooja’s job “could leave her injured, paralyzed, or dead”, a risk “she’s all too aware of”, adding, “The tops of her hands are already scarred from sharp, fallen rocks, and she often thinks about a boy her age who died in a nearby mine when it collapsed.”
Asserting that “breathing in the dust in mica mines can cause infections, disease, and permanent damage to lungs”, report underlines, “But there’s a much more catastrophic risk that worries locals most.” Giving the example of Surma Kumari, 11, and her sister Lakmi, 14, the report informs, “They were working in a mine when it began to crumble.”
“When they tried to run, Surma got stuck under a rock and Lakmi was buried under a mountain of debris. Their mother and father were in the village when they heard there had been an accident, but by the time they got to the mine, Lakmi had died. ‘We couldn’t get her out for an hour’, says Surma, her surviving sister”, says the report.
Quoting Surma’s father, Kishar Kumari, the report says, the traders who control this particular cluster of mines have a set rate they give to families who lose loved ones while mining. “For each person who dies, they give Rs 30,000. Kishar has limited options to make a living, so he still works in the same mines, but stays above ground to sort the mica because it’s lower risk. ‘There’s no other form of [work]’, he explains. ‘When you’re hungry, there’s no other way’.”
Quoting Nagasayee Malathy, executive director KSCF, the report says, “There are between 10 and 20 deaths in mines every month, a conservative number based on what we heard on the ground. Kishar never saw the police fill out a report when they came to take Lakmi’s body for examination, and tells us that nothing happened to the traders who control the mine. It was all business as usual.”
Noting that these children, most of whom are school dropouts, do not know what happens to the raw mica after they mine it, the report says, eventually the raw material, excavated by these children, is collected by a broker, who sells it to an exporter, who then delivers it to a manufacturer, typically in China.
“It’s then milled into fine, pearly pigment that is purchased by international beauty companies to add a reflective finish to eyeshadow, blush, lipstick, and more. Everyone in the supply chain financially benefits from obscuring the origin of the mica through this complicated turn of hands, because it keeps costs low by allowing exporters to exploit the people mining it”, it adds.
The report underlines, “Mica linked to child labour is littered throughout the cosmetics industry – taking up residency in everything from high-end eyeshadows palettes to drugstore lipsticks. Listed as ‘mica,’ ‘potassium aluminium silicate,’ and ‘CI 77019,’ on ingredient lists, it’s what gives body lotion or eye cream a light glow, makes toothpaste look extra bright, or provides BB cream with a subtle radiance.”
It adds, “Unlike chunky glitter often made from plastic, mica’s delicate shimmer is one of the pillars of modern makeup – and 60% of the high-quality mica that goes into cosmetics comes from India, mostly from neighboring regions of Bihar and Jharkhand, where child mining and worker exploitation is the norm.”
Recalling that locals have “mined mica in this part of India for millenia, using it both for decoration and Ayurvedic medicine”, the report says, today, roughly 70% of mica produced in India comes from illegal mines that are totally unregulated by the government. “With no other industries in the region, many families have no choice but to continue working in crumbling mines under a new, informal organization sometimes referred to as the ‘mica mafia’,” it says.
Quoting Aysel Sabahoglu, who has been with the Terre des Hommes (TDH), a Dutch watchdog group monitoring the mica issue in India, the report says that “brands that have contributed to the current situation have a responsibility to clean up the supply chain and become involved in social empowerment programmes for those communities.”
And yet, “most of the biggest cosmetic conglomerates in the world, like L’Oréal – which owns brands like Maybelline, Urban Decay, Essie, Nyx, and more – have gone the other direction.” A L’Oréal’s official statement to R29 says, “We believe that discontinuing the use of Indian mica would further weaken the local situation.”
“L’Oréal is committed to the continued sourcing [of] natural mica from India in order to allow already impoverished communities to keep generating income. To do so, L’Oréal ensures traceability and transparency of its whole supply chain to guarantee fair and responsible mica”, the statement reads, claiming, it “only buys from suppliers who source from independently-verified, gated mines where children are not present.”
But Claire van Bekkum of TDH disagrees: “The majority of mica mining takes place in Jharkhand and Bihar, but there are hardly any legal mines in these states, so the mica from these states is exported using the licenses of legal mines in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan…”

Comments

Uma said…
Our governments of course couldn't care less but the big cosmetic manufacturers should be forced to get rid of the middle men and upgrade facilities so that children are not required to work at all. The best would be that people stop using cosmetics but that is not going to happen ever.
Rasheed Akhtar said…
It’s very sad. In spite of talking big about child labour, INDIA is unable to control children working in such dangerous mines.
It’s more or less like working in Asbestos environment few decades back in North American continent.
Do you think this awareness would make any difference in India?

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