Kolar Gold fields: From fields of gold to a dust bowl

  • Since mines were shut in Kolar Gold Fields in 2001, the town has received neither electricity nor water regularly. There are barely any toilets and people can be seen defecating in the open.
  • Hillocks of toxic residue, locally called cyanide hills, stand tall in Kolar. The untreated toxic waste ends up contaminating land, air and water, causing harm to the health of the local people.
  • The government rules require the mine operator, which was a government company in this case, to restore the mine area. These norms have been ignored so far.

“The government has taken 40 precious years of my life, used me and left me to die when their work was completed,” rued 79-year-old K. Esavel, a resident of Karnataka’s Kolar Gold Fields (KGF).   

The Kolar Gold fields are about 100 kilometres from Bangalore. Operated by the Bharat Gold Mines Limited (BGML), a public sector undertaking, the KGF was the world’s second deepest gold mine at a depth of 3,000 metres. The mines remained active for 121 years before it experienced an unsystematic closure on February 28, 2001. The mines were closed owing to high operational costs and low revenues. The area has an interesting history too. 

“It was once called mini England and the KGF was the first Indian city to be electrified in 1902. The British government had also built a lake to meet the water demands of the area. When the mine was operational, the area didn’t experience any power cuts and water shortage. But now, after the gold has finished the area has lost its glitter too as there is neither proper electricity supply nor drinking water,” Esavel told Mongabay India.

The labourers who used to work in these mines live in poverty without any financial and health aid from the government. Residents live in shanties smaller than 100 square feet in over 400 colonies. The living conditions in those colonies are very poor as well as people don’t have access to proper toilet facilities and there are open drains in the colonies for wastewater which ends up triggering a host of communicable diseases. About 260,000 people still live in the Kolar Gold Fields. 

Kalai Arasan, a resident of the KGF’S Mill Colony, informed that there are only five public toilets and nearly 2,500 inhabitants rely on them. She claimed that all the men and more than half of the women defecate in the open. “The local municipality didn’t pay heed to the several complaints made by the residents demanding proper toilet facilities, she mentioned. When the toilets weren’t cleaned for over a year, the residents started cleaning them because they feared a disease outbreak,” Kalai told Mongabay-India.

Read more: [Video] Is mining in India ‘just’ for the environment and communities?

Land and water contamination in the Kolar Gold Fields

The mine was closed without any prior intimation and left environmental waste near the BGML site. Over the years, the mines have generated about 35 million tonnes of residue from ore processing. The effluents are dumped in mounds, which comprise cyanide and silica. According to a study, there are 13 major dumps on the surface, occupying about 15 percent of the total land area of about 58.12 square kilometres. Some of the cyanide dumps, locally known as cyanide hills, rise to a height of 40 metres. 

K. Esavel, 79, a resident of the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) in Karnataka. He used to work at KGF and has developed liver problems. Photo by Tejas Dayanand Sagar.

The residue contains sodium cyanide, which is used along with lime to extract gold. Some other additional chemicals used are copper sulphate and sodium silicate, which are present in the dump. In some low-lying areas, froth is seen on the surface due to acidification of the residue materials of sulphide dust, the study notes.

Environmentalist Vijay Kuman said the dump contaminated the groundwater in the area. He explained that the streams, which flow through the residue dumps, cause floods during monsoon and chemicals from the dump seeps into the water tanks and fertile agricultural lands. “This has made the land infertile, whereas it was once used to grow vegetables, paddy, ragi and groundnut,” Kuman told Mongabay India while adding that though the area receives good rainfall, the lack of proper catchment areas means that water isn’t collected and the district experiences droughts regularly.

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Health hazards

Many former employees of the Kolar Gold Fields suffer from silicosis. Esavel mentioned that though he didn’t develop silicosis as he only worked underground for a few years, he developed liver problems. The workers who used to work underground had silicosis owing to the blast, gases and smoke, he said.

He revealed that only a few employees of the mine are alive now, while a majority of them have died after developing diseases such as silicosis and lung cancer. “There are no proper hospitals, and they usually have to go to Bangalore for treatment,” Esavel said.

The cyanide dumps are covered by a cloud of dust and reek of sulphur dioxide, causing air pollution, a study had noted. Residents complain that particulate matter (tiny dust particles) from the dump is a major cause of skin allergies and respiratory problems in the area. 

Annan S., a shopkeeper in the city’s main market, stated that it’s difficult to breathe during windy days owing to the dust particles in the air. “Rashes, allergies and respiratory problems are common in the area,” he said. 

Murali K., the town’s health inspector, admitted to Mongabay-India that silicosis is the common disease among the mineworkers. He said lung cancer is also prevalent among people living in the area and conceded that no measures have been taken to stop the spread, but they are trying to contain air pollution by planting the saplings on the cyanide hill. 

Read more: Some hope for Rajasthan’s silicosis victims but many challenges

Educated but jobless

But it is not just about the health impacts, the people of the town are struggling with their livelihood as well. About 260,000 people still live in the KGF and due to lack of work in their locality, they end up regularly travelling to Bangalore for work. 

Residents of the KGF live in small shanties. Photo by Tejas Dayanand Sagar.

Valaras M., a 22-year-old local resident, mentioned that he travels to Bangalore to work as a daily wage labourer. He stated that a major portion of his earnings is spent on travel, and he works in Bangalore for two consecutive days, comes back home the day after, takes rest, and then follows the same routine. 

He highlighted that it doesn’t matter even if they are educated since there are no jobs nearby. “After the closure of mines, no companies are operating in the area, apart from Bharat Earth Movers Limited, but some people have also started driving auto-rickshaws and set up shops, Valaras said.

Many of the former employees of the BGML allege that they are getting no or low pension. Another resident K. Subramani, 67, who used to work as a supervisor in the mines, stated that he earns about Rs. 650 as pension every month. He complained that the BGML had promised that the amount would be raised to Rs. 3,000 but that never happened. 

Esavel, who worked underground in the mine for 11 years, stated that he was forced to voluntarily retire before the mine shut down but he doesn’t get any pension and was forced to work as a daily wage labourer to make ends meet. “We suddenly became untouchables after the closure of mills and the government is ignoring us like we don’t exist,” Esavel added. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has marginalised the people further as the trains are not functional. Valaras said he has been sitting idle at home since the start of the lockdown and is facing financial difficulties.

Read more: India proposes overhaul of mining sector amid concerns over legality and social impact

Government’s apathy

While talking about the mine closure, India’s National Mineral Policy notes that once the reserves in mine are completely exhausted there is a need for scientific mine closure which will not only restore the ecology and regenerate biodiversity but also take into account the socio-economic aspects of such closure. 

“Where mining activities have been spread over a few decades, mining communities get established and closure of the mine means not only loss of jobs for them but also disruption of community life. Mine closure should be done in an orderly and systematic manner. Government has a role in ensuring that post-production mine decommissioning and land reclamation are an integral part of the mine development process; that financial provisions for the costs incurred in mine closure are accorded a high level of priority by the industry; and that consistent approaches are adopted for efficient and effective mine reclamation and rehabilitation,” the policy notes.

But this transition never happened for the KGF. Many times in the past, the Centre has asked the state government to revive the area but the state government contended that the area brings no revenue to the city municipal council and has liabilities of over Rs. 17,000 crore (Rs. 170 billion). 

Rajendran, a former legislator from the KGF area and President of the Republic Party of India, stated that the KGF has always been neglected when it comes to the fund allocation for development and said people of the KGF are living in poor conditions because of the government’s apathy. 

Roopa Kala Sashidhar, the current legislator from the Indian National Congress party, told Mongabay-India that the state government isn’t approving the MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) grant of Rs two crore (Rs. 20 million ) for the last two years, citing floods and COVID-19. 

“In KGF, we have the manpower, good infrastructure and acres of land, which can be used for industrial purposes and the borders of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are close by. The state government should have capitalised on these things to create employment opportunities for the people in KGF,” Sashidhar told Mongabay-India.  

We must build proper infrastructure for hospitals here, and it is the responsibility of the government to create employment opportunities, but currently, the government isn’t focused on the development of KGF or reopening the mines, she said.

The ore processing units at the Bharat Gold Mines Limited site. Photo by Tejas Dayanand Sagar.

Even the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM), an organisation under the Department of Mines, mandates that the mine operator close it responsibly. Its guideline states that the region’s pre-mining ecology is to be restored, the toxic residue is to be disposed of and underground water be protected from the toxic residue. The company closing the mine is responsible for the restoration and management of air, water, top soil, waste, and infrastructure in the area.

However, in the KGF, the unplanned closure has left the area in a mess. Karthikeyan Kandasamy, professor, Sigma College of Architecture in Kanyakumari, in his research ‘Socio-economic Impact of Unsystematic Mine Closure: A case of Kolar Gold Fields’ states that if due process was followed in the KGF while shutting the mine, it could have brought new land use, employment, character and vibrancy to the area. The study blames unplanned closure for the degradation of land, environment and people’s livelihood in the KGF. 

“The policies and Acts to control unplanned mine closure and counter its effects on the community should be made strong by the Indian government. These issues and challenges faced by the people of KGF will be addressed and can be improved if the government, mining company and people show their support and interest in reviving the town,” Karthikeyan said in his research.

Recently, the Karnataka government announced its plans to develop an industrial park in the area of over 3,200 acres of the 12,109 acres owned by the BGML. But whether the plan would bring relief to the residents or increase their misery remains to be seen.

Read more: Is joint community ownership the way forward for mineral governance in India?

– With inputs from Tejas Dayanand Sagar.

(The author is a staff correspondent with, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)


Banner image: Cyanide hills are part of the KGF’s landscape, and were created from the residue of ore processing. Photo by Tejas Dayanand Sagar.

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