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Will Kolar Gold Fields shine as brightly again?

Twenty years after the mines were closed, the Centre plans to revive them, but young people’s aspirations have changed and environmental concerns remain

Coromandel station in Kolar Gold Fields through which commuter trains to Bengaluru pass
Coromandel station in Kolar Gold Fields through which commuter trains to Bengaluru pass (Gita Aravamudan)

The saga of the famed and fabulous Kolar Gold Mines which stretched over 121 years ended in 2001. Not with a bang but a whimper. Just like T.S. Eliot’s world.

The mines were finally closed. The amazing history of the deepest mines on earth were not even chronicled. No effort was made to salvage and showcase the sturdy equipment which had worked for over a hundred years under most adverse circumstances. The beautiful bungalows which had survived so many rockbursts were left to crumble away.

Also read: How the British struck gold in this Karnataka mining town

Everything was dumped. The magnificent period furniture, the gold nuggets in the safe, the invaluable mining records. All the accessible metal, including the hoists and the trolley tracks, were wrenched out and sold for scrap by desperate men who had lost their jobs.

The most tragic of all was the abandonment of the miners whose families had toiled for the mines for more than four generations. Retrenchment had been going on for a few years. The deepest shafts were already flooded with water from underground. For nearly two decades, the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) had been teetering on the verge of death. Yet, when they were officially declared dead, there were many unanswered questions.

Also read: How a Karnataka mining town became famous as Little England

Were there unexplored gold-bearing veins left inside those abandoned shafts? Would reworking the cyanide dumps yield ore? KGF might have become a ghost of its former self, but there were still people living within that shell. The forefathers of the miners and their families who had drifted in from elsewhere had made KGF their ancestral home and mining their ancestral skill. Now they had nowhere to go.

The abandoned century-old Oorgaum post office in Kolar Gold Fields
The abandoned century-old Oorgaum post office in Kolar Gold Fields (Gita Aravamudan)

In a way, KGF was always no man’s land. The British built this township on sparsely occupied land. The Tamil-speaking people who came here to work were fleeing their old lives in villages that eventually became part of Tamil Nadu. But KGF was situated physically in Kannada-speaking Karnataka whose politicians did not care about the Tamil population. The people of KGF were literally in a limbo.

Longtime residents had tried desperate measures to find alternative solutions before the mines were shut. There was a serious attempt to turn the dying mines into a tourist attraction like in South Africa. The response from the tourism industry was good. The bungalows could be turned into guesthouses and tourists could go down the shafts in cages that were 100 years old. It would be an exotic and adventurous location. However, New Delhi turned down the suggestion on the grounds that a company constituted to mine gold could not diversify into tourism.

“No one in Delhi cares if the mines are closed or if people die here,” said an old-timer bitterly. “No one has even visited this place. They scoff when we talk of the old times. As far as they are concerned, KGF has no historical importance. The people can die. All that matters is that the mines no longer make money.”

Also read: A mining town full of danger yet more precious than gold

Was bureaucratic lethargy then responsible for allowing this heritage town to turn into dust? The irony is that our National Mineral Policy’s own guidelines were flouted when closing the mines. According to the NMP, “Once the reserves in a mine are completely exhausted, there is need for scientific mine closure which will not only restore ecology and regenerate bio diversity but also take into account the socio-economic aspects of such closure.” Mine closure, the guidelines say, should be done “in an orderly and systematic manner”.

There was obviously nothing orderly or systematic about this closure. The last few hundred miners who were left on the rolls when the mines were officially closed were offered a lay-off package but they were dissatisfied and went to court, egged on by their union leaders. The miners themselves were divided over this issue, with some feeling they should take what is given and try and start a new life. Their anger over the closure extended to politicians of various hues who came with unviable suggestions. A bit later, as part of the compensation package, they were allotted bungalows.

The mines had become unviable because the production was low and there was no money to repair and maintain the old machinery or invest in modernisation. More importantly, unlike in the Hatti gold mines where the gold was sold in the open market, the gold mined from KGF was sold only to the Reserve Bank of India at a price much lower than the market rate. Could these problems have been addressed more seriously?

In 2006, the Cabinet approved of the sale of Bharat Gold Mines Limited (BGML, the public sector company that owns Kolar Gold Fields, through a global tender. In 2009, a single-bench judge of the Karnataka High Court ratified this order. Some of the miners decided to form consortiums and bid for these tenders. Meanwhile, some Australian companies wanted to partner with the miners in this venture.

Also read: When a gold mine became the world's deepest physics lab

New but not renewed

In 2010 when I visited KGF, I found a new town had emerged from the rubble. It was not the sparkling place I grew up in, but neither was it an abandoned town. It had a population of about 1.64 lakh. Amidst the crumbling bungalows were some nicely restored ones. Robertsonpet was bustling with life. A few colleges had sprung up. My alma mater, the St. Joseph’s Convent, was brimming with students. The KGF Boy’s school was being restored by some alumni. About 1,500 young, educated people commuted 100km to Bangalore every day for work. Life went on, but it was not easy or comfortable.

There is a catchy “gaana” song by a frustrated young man, composed maybe while travelling on that jampacked commuter train to Bengaluru.

He sings in Tamil about the frustration of living in a town named Thanga Vayil or Gold Fields which has no job or source of livelihood to offer. He sings of the rejection the KGF youth face both in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and of the frustration of educated young people who may end up eating the copious amounts of cyanide mud lying around.

I spoke a couple of times to Nick Spencer, former managing director of Kolar Gold, an Australia-based mining consortium which was formed with the intent of reviving mining in the Kolar area. He spoke of the gold still lying untapped underground which could be extracted by using powerful pumps and modern machinery, and of the gold in the mine tailings which form the dumps.

But nothing had moved in the two decades that he had been visiting KGF. Once, he tried to form a joint venture with a consortium of local miners who were hoping to get the first right of refusal when bidding for the global tenders. He has moved to another company now and is trying to work with an Indian partner to set up a public-private partnership and mine the tailings.

Another twist

The issue went to the Supreme Court. In 2013 the Supreme Court permitted the Union government to revive the mines rather than sell it to private entities.

The Union government directed BGML to conduct a study of dumps and mines and give a feasibility report. The Minerals Exploration Corporation Limited (MECL) was given this task. In December 2020, the Union minister for mines announced the mining activity would be revived. But in what form was the question on most people’s minds.

Could the old mines be revived? Or was the government planning to go for open cast mining which would cause more environmental disaster? It’s not clear yet. Twenty years have passed since the mines closed and the young people are no longer interested in mining. They just want jobs.

KGF lives on

In 2014, I launched my mystery novel set in KGF, Colour of Gold, at The Club. Most of the iconic structures in the mining area had crumbled, but the KGF club still stood like a shadow of its former self. The once polished and shiny ballroom floor was scratched and stained and, in a corner, the grand piano stood abandoned under a piece of plastic. But as the evening light gently fell through the high windows and my old friends and their friends filled the hall and sat on the plastic chairs, there was a warmth I had never experienced before.

Gita Aravamudan (right) with her son, Sriram, at the bar of the 135-year-old KGF Club
Gita Aravamudan (right) with her son, Sriram, at the bar of the 135-year-old KGF Club

The powers that be continue to waver—the mines will be sold through global tenders, they will be revived by a public sector undertaking, KGF will be turned into an industrial hub, the cyanide dumps will be mined…

But as always, the core of KGF survives. Because, as Longfellow said, “Dust thou art to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul.

This is the last 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.

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