Emerson Atkins peers from behind the gate of the Edgar mine shaft at Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), where he works as a security guard, to inspect his visitors. “Outsiders are not allowed inside and have not been since the mine shut down in 2001,” he says, somewhat stern. His soft-brown eyes soften as he spots the camera. “I used to work in the engineering department here; those were the good times,” he adds, turning to look at the commotion created by a troop of monkeys, the current occupants of the building.
Atkins, 54, was born in KGF—a little mining town 100km east of Bangalore, Karnataka—to a British father who worked at the mines and an Anglo-Indian mother. He’s never known a life outside the township where the primary source of employment for more than a century had been the gold-rich mines.
Mining in the area is said to have begun centuries ago, dating back to the Gupta period in the fifth century AD. In 1875, an English mining firm began the systematic mining of gold from KGF. The ownership of the mines changed several times until they were handed over to the Central government in 1972 to form Bharat Gold Mines Ltd (BGML), a public sector unit. In 2001, BGML shut due to recurring losses, converting KGF into a ghost town.
KGF, or “Little England” as the Britishers called it, was the first place in the country to get electricity almost 110 years ago, and the second in Asia after Tokyo. It had one of the first cemented roads in the country. Ironically, a lot of streets here do not have street lights now.
M.S. Sunderesan was among the 3,200 employees who worked with BGML until its closure. Sunderesan, who worked with the survey department of the mines for 22 years, stands outside the Champion Reef mine shaft where he was posted and gestures towards the stone building that still stands sturdy.
“This was built in 1937 and is still strong. It will be so nice if the mining resumes. This town will come alive again,” he says, elaborating that for the last 10 years, he has been feeding his family of eight by playing the tabla at household and public functions. Two of his four sons travel every day to Bangalore on the Swarna Express train for day jobs as painters. “There are no jobs here, so the only option is to go to Bangalore,” he says.
Close to 10,000 people are said to travel everyday to Bangalore in the jam-packed Swarna Express, the world’s longest passenger train, which has a seating capacity of 1,440, to work as call centre employees, security guards, cooks and in other daily-wage jobs. Six days a week, the train runs packed with youngsters. “Our grandfathers used to tell us that they were like kings before independence, but now we feel like slaves being transported in this packed train twice a day just to earn our daily bread,” says Elkena David, who works for a shipping company in Bangalore. His friend who works for GE Healthcare grumbles about how there isn’t enough room and no toilets on the train, despite it being the only direct train to Bangalore.
Back at the KGF, families still occupy buildings built during the British Raj. “I live in a villa that has seven rooms, but can’t afford to maintain it,” says Atkins, whose children have moved to Bangalore for better-paying jobs.
Mill tailings dumps or cyanide dumps (sandy waste material from the gold extraction mills) form the backdrop to Robertsonpet, a planned suburb that was established in 1902 for employees of the mines. Dust from these dumps clogs the air when it is windy and is said to be the possible cause for asthma in the town. “When BGML was still functional, the organization watered the dump to keep the dust settled. Plantations have been created on some of the dumps by the forest department,” says A.N. Nagarajan, a scientist at the KGF-based National Institute of Rock Mechanics, an organization that was a consulting agency to BGML during the mining tenure.
A proposal for the revival of mining at KGF is before the Union cabinet with a possible merger between BGML and National Aluminium Co. Ltd (Nalco). But with former BGML employees objecting to the involvement of Nalco—they believe one needs foreign expertise and technology to make it work—it may still be a long time before “Little England” sees a return to its days of glory.
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