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How the British struck gold in this Karnataka mining town

Since 1880, Kolar Gold Fields was supplying massive quantities of gold to Britain. But in the 1950s, life in this picture-book colonial town was starting to bear the costs

Hillocks, known as the cyanide dumps, were a major landmark of Kolar Gold Fields. (Courtesy: Gita Aravamudan)

By Gita Aravamudan

FIRST PUBLISHED 24.02.2021  |  07:00 AM IST

In the 1950s, Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), a mining region in the Kolar district of Karnataka, was to all appearances a picture-book colonial town with big bungalows, colourful gardens, churches with steeples and a sprawling clubhouse surrounded by a golf course. Only the tall mining shafts poking out like needles across the landscape differentiated it from other similar towns which dotted our country. And then there were the hillocks of the residual waste from the mills which ground the gold-laden ore. These hillocks, known as the cyanide dumps, were the other major landmarks of our mining town.

My father was an accountant. He was among the first few Indian officers to be hired by the mining company. When we moved to KGF in 1950, we lived in a little bungalow with a tree-filled garden in the mining area. We were almost within touching distance of the Champion Reef Mine, which had the deepest shaft in the world. I could hear the wheels of the hoists atop the shaft rotating busily as they worked the lifts carrying the men and the ore in and out of the mine.

It was a life of contrasts. It almost seemed like we had landed in some sort of alien fairyland. The mines were still owned by John Taylor and Co, a British mining company, which had leased the land from the Maharaja of Mysore (now Mysuru) and started mining operations in 1880. Over 70 years, the British sahibs had made themselves very comfortable and created for themselves a luxurious lifestyle which included fully furnished quarters, like the one we lived in, and servants to wait on them hand and foot.

As for the native miners, they still lived in crowded ‘Lines’, mostly across the railway track which separated the mining area from the ‘Town’ or commercial area. The Anglo-Indian employees, who were between the white officers and the Indian miners in hierarchy, were given compact cottages with tiny gardens in the mining area.

It was a strange situation. We had been independent for three years, and yet, in the heart of free India there was this town where the money-spinning gold mines were still owned by a British company. The shining metal was brought out from the depths of the earth by mostly Indian and Anglo-Indian miners, who put their lives at risk every day. And the bricks made of this rich gold were immediately shipped out of the country to vaults in the UK.

The 1950s were also a period of transition. Many of the white officers had left. Others were on the point of leaving as they knew that the mines were soon to be nationalized. More and more Indian officers like my father were being appointed. We had most of the perks of the white sahibs, but not all their privileges.

Champion Reef Mine, Kolar Gold Fields. (Courtesy: Gita Aravamudan)

I am a “Midnight’s Child”, born at the cusp of independence. I had lived in a traditional joint family for the first three years of my life. And, for me, life in this new town was different and scary. At the convent school, in the section meant for officers’ children, in the beginning, I was the only Indian girl in a classroom full of white kids. Some of them refused to touch me, others kept their distance. But I also made some very good friends and learnt to speak English with a Brit accent.

Since we lived close to the shaft, I would watch the miners stream past our house on their way to work, swinging their helmets in their hands and chatting about families and debts and other day-to-day things. To them, descending into the depths of the dark mines and putting their lives at risk while chipping away at rocks inside tunnels was all in a day’s work. Their daily lives were defined by the siren, or “oostle” as they called it, which marked the beginning and end of every shift.

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Since my father had a surface job, I didn’t even think about what went on under the earth beneath my feet. My first major rock burst experience in 1952 changed my childish perception of life in KGF. I was five and had just joined St. Joseph’s Convent School. Early one morning a rock burst shook our picture postcard town so hard that my school was destroyed and the adjoining church and a couple of other buildings crumbled. My parents carried me and rushed out of the house while plaster rained all around us and some furniture tottered and fell.

The scenes in front of the mine close to our house were heartrending. Anxious families gathered there waiting to hear what happened to their men trapped inside. Our maid was wailing because her brother was in the mine. My mother told me that when the school collapsed, the French and Irish nuns who were praying in the chapel were trapped and had to be rescued by their cook who kicked open the door. Twenty men died in that rock burst and 10 more in another, two months later.

A rock burst occurs in deep mines when mining operations create fissures, which release tremendous pressure. This can cause rocks to actually explode, almost like bombs. It can also trigger the abrupt movement of adjacent geological structures causing tremors on the surface, like a mini earthquake.

Over the years, I learnt to follow the rock burst drill. Whenever there was a tremor, everyone would rush out of homes, offices and schools and stand in the open, praying for the men working inthe mine.

My father’s job as a junior accountant required him to accompany the van containing gold bullion to Bangalore (now Bengaluru), about 100km away. He would sit inside what I called the “jail van” with bars on the windows and a couple of armed security men and go straight to the airport from where the gold bars would be flown to England. To me, at that time, it seemed like he was doing something brave and dangerous.

Many years later I asked him how he felt about it. He told me he hated the thought of all that gold being lost to our country forever. But he had a job to do, and he really had no say in the matter.

By then, I was a journalist, and I was digging into the government archives in Bangalore to find out more about the history of the mines. I came across a handwritten note in one of the files which, in a way, echoed my father’s sentiments. It was from the Maharaja of Mysore’s finance secretary who had misgivings about the lease agreement which the Maharaja had signed with the British consortium that had just started mining operations in KGF.

The note dated 1893 said: ‘“The mining industry is not in the same position as regards the ultimate wealth of the country as manufacturing or agricultural industries. It will result in a certain amount of wealth being taken out of the country which can never be replaced.”

Wise words of caution which governments over the decades have never paid heed to. By the time the mines were nationalized in 1956, all the high- quality gold had gone. In 1901, about two decades or so after mining activity started in KGF, gold production was peaking. Between 1901 and 1910, the grade quality of the ore averaged at nearly 30 GPT (grams per tonne). In some years, it peaked at 40 GPT. In those 10 years, over 170,000 kg of gold was extracted, all of which went directly to England. By 1956, the grade quality of the ore had dropped to 10 GPT.

Forty-four years later, the 120-year-old gold mines were finally and abruptly closed in 2001, as they were considered unviable, in terms of economics as well as the environment.

This is the first of a six-part series on life in the mining township of Kolar Gold Fields, from the 1950s to the present day.

Gita Aravamudan is an author and journalist based in Bengaluru. Her books include Colour of Gold, a murder mystery set in the KGF mines, Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide and Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy