Gold – A Colonial Legacy
One of the important developments during the later period of British colonisation of India was the establishment of several large-scale industries across the region. The mandate of profit making was carried out with vigour by the colonial masters duly assisted by the local rulers. In the princely state of Mysore, one such enterprise which went on to become one of the most profitable in the whole of British India was the gold mining industry in Kolar Gold Fields. Over 120 years of its existence (1880–2001), the mines yielded 800 tonnes of gold of the highest quality.
In February 1802, Lieutenant John Warren, tasked with surveying the eastern boundary of the state of Mysore, heard reports of availability of gold in the villages of Oorgaum and Marikuppam. Intrigued by the claims, Warren spent a few days in the area and discovered that the people from the lower castes carried out shallow mining (up to depths of 30 feet) and surface mining in the region. He also learnt about the explorations and prospecting conducted during Tipu Sultan’s rule in the eighteenth century. Warren published his findings in the Asiatic journal, including a financial analysis, which deemed the methods and techniques unviable for large-scale operations. Although there were explorations conducted by enthusiastic military men over the next few decades, there was no significant activity until Michael F Lavelle, a British military officer posted in Bangalore, applied to the Mysore Maharaja to obtain rights to conduct large-scale prospecting for coal and other useful minerals in the region. Curiously, in his application, he did not mention gold. It could be discerned that, maybe, Lavelle was wary of creating unnecessary interest in the offices of Mysore State. Two years later, in 1875, the Maharaja granted him exclusive rights over ten blocks of land; each of them not exceeding two square miles. Soon, Lavelle realised the need for more capital and started looking for partners. Eventually, he sold his lease to a group of officers from Madras Staff Corps who created a syndicate known as Colar Concessionaries Company Limited. They, too, exhausted their capital soon and sold their rights to multiple companies over the next couple of years. One company which stood this turbulent period was John Taylor & Sons. Owing to their prior experience in mining in England, John Taylor & Sons showed patience and soon bought over all the leases for mining in the region. In 1880, John Taylor & Sons laid down the foundations for mining operations in KGF, charting a new course of history for the region. Their initiatives received a great impetus in 1885, when Champion Lode was discovered. With this, what seemed like a flagging enterprise until now, turned into an extremely lucrative one. The many company leases were consolidated into five major ones by the 1920s: Mysore Mines, Champion Reef Mines, Nundydroog Mines, Oorgaum Mines and Balaghat Mines.
The ore in the mines of KGF was of the highest grade (gold per tonne of ore), and the initial decades saw massive production of gold. The peak production was in 1905 when 5,56,527 ounces of gold was produced. By 1943, 583 tonnes of gold was produced from the beginning of the operations. KGF Mines were also well known for their engineering, and several delegations from South Africa and elsewhere would visit the mining facilities in KGF to understand the technology implemented here. Each mine had a primary shaft and then there were underground network of tunnels connecting all the auxiliary shafts. Currently, there exists 1400 kilometres of underground tunnel network in Kolar Gold Fields.
For the princely state of Mysore, which had just about got back at the helm of the administration in the state after a fifty-year direct rule by the British (1831–1881) and owed 35 lakh rupees as subsidy to the East India Company every year, KGF mines were a crucial source of revenue. Initially, the mining companies paid a royalty of 5 per cent to the Mysore government, to which an additional tax on the gold, based on the price differential, was added on later. The government of Mysore appointed a Chief Inspector of Mines whose job was to produce detailed annual reports on the mining operations in KGF. But, invariably, these reports became the voice of the mining authorities and ignored the difficult working conditions in the mines. John Taylor & Sons had a seat in the Mysore representative assembly and hence had a significant say in the laws and legislations which affected their interests. The Mysore Mines Act was passed in 1906 to regulate the conditions of employment in the mines. However, on company’s request, many criminal laws were tweaked in KGF. For instance, any person in the possession of gold in KGF had to prove that it was not stolen gold from the mines. So, the burden of proof rested on the victim rather than the prosecution. There was also a provision under which the company itself could issue ‘Mines Out’ and ‘State Out’ notices to workers caught committing any undesirable activity. ‘Mines Out’ meant the worker couldn’t enter the mining area, and ‘State Out’ meant the worker had to leave the state of Mysore. The state did not intervene to question any of these practices until 1930, when a massive workers’ strike forced John Taylor & Sons to request the Mysore State to help resolve the crisis. For the first time since the formation of the company in 1880, an independent enquiry was initiated into the socio-economic conditions of workers in Kolar Gold Fields. This initiative was led by M.A. Sreenivasan. Based on his report, the committee arrived at a set of recommendations to be implemented in KGF. Workers Compensation Act was enforced in KGF, and the miner’s phthisis was included as an occupational disease for the first time. The company also convinced the Mysore government to setup a hydroelectric plant at Shivasamudram in order to supply electricity to the mines at a distance of almost of 220 kilometers away. A water reservoir and a water filtering system was setup at Bethamangalam (13 kilometres from KGF) to cater to the needs of the mining town. Thus, with the support of the Mysore State, by the first decade of the twentieth century, KGF had been established on the lines of a European township with recreation clubs, playgrounds, convent schools, churches, hospitals, and soon came to be known as ‘Little England’.
Kolar Gold Fields, located in the eastern corner of Mysore State, bordered Telugu-speaking and Tamil-speaking regions of the then Madras Presidency. Naturally, most of the labour requirement in the mines was fulfilled by workers from these regions. John Taylor & Sons were aware of the skill requirements and hired tactfully in the early years: officials and engineers were recruited from Europe, supervisors and foremen from the English-speaking Anglo-Indian community, security personnel were recruited from Punjab, carpenters from the Malabar region, diggers were from the Waddar tribes, scavengers from the Andhra region, and plenty of unskilled workers were recruited from the distressed North Arcot and Salem districts of Madras Presidency. This pattern of recruitment created a very interesting mix in the population of the new town of KGF, which constituted of a few Europeans and Anglo-Indians, but over 50 per cent of the population was from the depressed classes of the society (Adi-Dravidas). Also, linguistically, Tamil was the most dominant language in KGF, which has lent a unique political and cultural colour to the region even though it was located in the erstwhile Kannada-speaking Mysore State. As the mining operations grew, the need for workers grew, thus the population in KGF grew. This also led to the growth of a tertiary population comprising of businessmen, Marwari moneylenders, food vendors, etc., which supported the mining population. In order to support this tertiary population, the government of Mysore built a new township equipped with markets and housing in 1903 named Robertsonpet, after the then British resident Donald Robertson. Soon, the expansion of population resulted in establishment of another township named Andersonpet. For these depressed-class people, despite the challenges of working underground in the mines, the opportunity to live and make an independent life in KGF was a better offer than working as a slave labourer in the agriculture fields of the oppressive zamindars.
There were two categories of workers in the mines: those who were directly employed by the company and those who were employed through contractors. Although there were strict rules about working hours, those who worked for contractors ended up working multiple shifts in order to earn more wages, and thus became more vulnerable to accidents and mishaps. Working underground in the mines posed several challenges to the workers. The temperatures could reach as high as 131-degree Fahrenheit, and only candles were provided for illumination until the 1930s, when the carbide lamps replaced the candles. In the initial decades, the mines in KGF were deepest in the world, and reached depths beyond 8000 feet. By the 1940s, the newly setup Gifford Shaft could reach 11,000 feet deep. Till date, KGF mines were the second deepest after the South African mines. These scary depths inspired Tamil phrases such as Keelay ponal ponam, melay vandal panam (Going down, death threatens, coming up money beckons) and other songs on the working conditions which were proudly sung by the workmen. The treacherous conditions underground was compounded by accidents. The main causes for these accidents were: rock bursts owing to unstable rocks, collapse of the cage carrying workers down the shaft, fires and workers falling through a hole due to unavailability of light. On its part, John Taylor & Sons tried its best to attribute most of the accidents to workers’ carelessness. Rock bursts were shrugged off as unavoidable. Of course, to its credit, the company also started safety campaigns and laid out strict safety rules for the workers.
John Taylor & Sons built residential facilities for all the employees. While the Europeans and Anglo-Indians were provided with bungalows and a battery of servants, the workers were housed in workers’ colonies known as ‘Lines’. The accommodation for workers was either a Single Hut (18ft X 9ft) or a Double Hut (24 ft X 9ft). In contrast to the Europeans, the workers had multiple families staying in their small one-room huts. Initially, all these huts were made of bamboo and called ‘Aeroplane Huts’ since a forceful wind could blow them away. By mid-1944, there were about 12,348 huts provided to the workers.
In the late nineteenth century, the outbreak of Bubonic plague resulted in many deaths in KGF. In order to address the sanitation issues which were causing the epidemic, John Taylor & Sons instituted sanitary boards. These boards were responsible for maintaining the health and hygiene in the Lines. On an average, in 1930, 50,000 rats were exterminated every year. Although this initiative helped improve the workers' living conditions a little, they still were in stark contrast to the plush bungalows of the officers.
The workers also struggled with debts. Since the wages were really low and the worker had to support a big family, he was always in debt. The tough working conditions, living conditions and the pressure of debt created considerable unrest amongst workers. Although there were multiple small uprisings in the early twentieth century, the first big strike in which thousands of workers were mobilised happened in 1930. The strike was in opposition to John Taylor & Sons’ declaration to capture thumb imprints of the workers. Interestingly, the 1930 strike did not have a leader and was a collective effort by the workers. Bowing to the pressure of the strike, the company quashed the thumb imprint plan. Subsequently, once the Mysore Labour Act came into force in 1942, workers’ unions were formed in each mine. The Communist Party of India, Indian National Congress and Scheduled Caste Federation (Later Republican Party of India (RPI)) were the active political parties in the region from the 1940s, and participated vociferously in the trade union movement. The most successful strike was the 77-day shutdown in 1946, led by the Communist party leaders V. M. Govindan and K. S. Vasan, which resulted in the company agreeing to many of the demands related to workers’ housing, medical facilities, wages and working hours. The Dravidian movement of 1960s also saw the emergence of DMK and AIADMK as political forces in Kolar Gold Fields.
The gold output in the mines suffered a decline since the 1930s. Any new exploratory effort required new infusion of capital by the company, and also a decision had to be made about the dangers of going further deep. While these problems were plaguing the company, India became an independent nation in 1947, and there was immediate pressure to hand over the mines to the state. Eventually, in 1956, John Taylor & Sons handed over the mining operations in KGF to the Mysore State and left the shores of India. The Anglo-Indians also migrated to Australia, Canada and UK in the next couple of decades. Those who could not migrate to Western countries, did so to bigger cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru. There are only about 40 Anglo-Indian families living in KGF now. But the workers could not afford to migrate anywhere, and continued to live and work in the mines. After few years, the mines were nationalised and came to be managed by the finance ministry of the India government until Bharat Gold Mines Limited (BGML) Corporation was formed in 1972. The low gold outputs over several decades made the mines unviable, and BGML ran into losses for many decades. Finally, the government of India decided to close mining operations in 2001. A 120-year old quest for gold had come to an end. A quest for which thousands gave their lives and multiple generations contributed with their blood and sweat. Now, the mining town of Kolar Gold Fields wears a deserted look as there is no employment available locally, and thousands commute to the nearby metropolis of Bengaluru for work via train.
At the time of the closure, there were about 3000 workers employed by BGML. The VRS offered by government of India was not acceptable to many of these workers. A litigation was filed in the courts by the workers’ representatives against what they termed as ‘unlawful’ closure of the mines. Fortuitously, in 2006, the cabinet decided to float a global tender inviting companies, including the workers’ co-operative, to bid for the mines. After much back and forth due to objections raised by BEML, in 2013, the Supreme Court of India ruled in favour of the cabinet’s decision of a global tender. The workers’ co-operative rejoiced upon hearing this verdict, but BGML is yet to implement the apex court’s order.
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