Deep inside the reserve forests of Bihar, India, the hot morning sun beats down at 40 degrees Celsius. Along the dry, muddy ground are flecks of mica dust, waiting to be collected. The mine is busy; too busy for a place that “officially shut-down” months ago.
Nearly 40 men, women and children are here hunting for mica, a mineral that will give paint, electronics and make-up that irresistible shimmer.
Six-year-old Roshni and her little brother Kamal, four, sit at the mouth of the pitch-black cave picking tiny flecks into a bowl.
Dig, sort, repeat.
They’re paid 10 rupees ($0.15 US) per kilogram. The children treat it like a game to get through the day. “On an average day together, we collect 40 to 50 kilograms,” says Karan.
So, why hand-pick the mica? Could machines not be used instead?
“If mica is collected using machines, it breaks into finer pieces, reducing its value in the market,” says Rajendar, the group guide who once worked in this very mine. “Once it’s broken down, the mica can only be collected using smaller tools and bare hands.”
During a recent NGO coalition meeting on child labour, a Bihar government official said, “It is a law violation if people are mining without approval. If they are engaging in child labour, they’re committing a double crime.”
Though this mine is illegally operated, it employs people from nearby villages and communities, targeting those who don’t have any other option for work.
The only alternative is to migrate to a bigger city in search of work. Karan tried this before. He traveled to Bangalore—over 2,100 kilometers away—but ended up as a daily wage labourer in the plastic scrap industry. He returned home six months later.
“I couldn’t afford to take care of my expenses there and save enough to send money home as well,” he says. “It was very difficult.”
So here they are now: Karan and his family, living in a small, temporary hut, about 30 kilometers away from the mine. It takes a grueling three to four hours to commute to work on foot. Apart from this and the lack of proper housing, the family also could do with clean water, proper safety and health care facilities.
“My grandfather did this, my father did this, and now I do this,” says Karan, solemnly. He hopes against all odds that one day, his future children won’t have to say the same.
Roshni and Kamal’s parents, Devi and Karan, take turns holding the torch while the other digs into the rocky, slushy earth. They toss the muddy mica mix into the cane basket, then swiftly sort the mica from the rest.