Around 20,000 children work in North East India’s highly dangerous and illegal mica mines. The Indian Government has pledged to legalise these mines in order to protect a vital source of income for poverty stricken families, raise safety standards and put an end to child labour, which has already claimed many young lives; but will this strategy work?
It makes cars sparkle and eyeshadow shimmer. Yet, despite the glamourous hue it produces, how mica is collected is far from seductive.
In 2015 and 2016, separate investigations by The Guardian and Thompson Reuters exposed terrible working conditions and child labour connected with the major mica producing states Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh in North East India, where a quarter of the world’s mica is produced.
The Reuters investigation alone found that seven children had been killed in these mines within two months; some of their deaths covered up by the illegal mine operators which paid families for their silence. Further deaths have been recorded by the India-based NGO Save Childhood Movement.
Ninety-percent of mining in this region is illegal and therefore unregulated. Investigations have revealed that, through complex supply chains, mica mined illegally in India, often ends up in the products of common household and luxury brands, including L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, Rimmel, Merck, BMW, Vauxhall and Audi.
The Delhi Mica Sourcing Summit in February 2016 resulted in the Responsible Mica Initiative being formed in January 2017. The initiative is supported by major brands, including Chanel, L’Oreal and Merck, to eradicate child labour in mica mining.
The aim of the initiative is to scale-up on-field solutions to reach a 100% sustainable Indian mica supply chain in five years.
Those involved in the initiative and other NGOs had been calling on the government to legalise the mines to ensure better regulation, standards and control. In May, authorities in Eastern India told Reuters it had begun this process.
Legalising mica: will it work?
According to Jharkhand’s mines commissioner, Aboobacker Siddique, the process of legalising the industry will start with authorities selling off dumps of scrap mica, which people were taking illegally. Around 100 have been identified. The government will then focus on auctioning off old mica mines and other reserves for mining.
“It is a great step forward – an opportunity,” says executive director of the Responsible Mica Initiative, Fanny Frémont. “Nevertheless, it really depends on how new leases will be granted,” she adds.
Legalising and organising the mines, along with strict lease conditions, could facilitate the implementation of good practices and control systems.
“It could ensure, for example, that adults are earning fair wages and are able to work in safe and healthy conditions; they would have the opportunity to improve their living conditions so the children could go to school instead of working in the mines,” explains Frémont.
The government has been working to tackle child labour in the region since 2005, including conducting a public awareness campaign, and has rescued around 250 children. But it has failed to stamp out the problem in all communities.