It is around noon and a motley group of men and women are walking determinedly along National Highway 67 somewhere between the towns of Sandur and Ballari in central Karnataka one October day even as trucks and SUVs zip by. The group, which has dissolved into small clumps, has just passed the town of Toranagallu, where JSW Steel, touted to be one of the largest steel manufacturing plants in the world, is located, and is nearing the Ballari Thermal Power Station at Kudatini village. It is a rainy day punctuated by bursts of sharp sunlight, but the walkers do not stop, letting their clothes dry in the sun. They began walking from Sandur and are going up to Bellari, a distance of about 70 km, for a purpose: compensation for lost jobs.
In the group are men who were employed in the iron ore mines spread across Ballari and Vijayanagara districts and had lost their jobs in July 2011 following a Supreme Court judgment halting all mining activities in the region. (Bellary was renamed Ballari in 2014; Vijayanagara district was carved out of Ballari district in 2021). Many of them have been agitating since 2013 when they organised themselves under the aegis of the Bellary Zilla Gani Karmikara Sangha (Ballari District Mining Workers Union or BZGKS).
While more than 25,000 workers lost their jobs in 2011, around 5,000 of them working in 28 companies got together to form the BZGKS to coordinate the workers’ demands at the Union, State, and district levels. The BZGKS, which is affiliated to the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2018 for rehabilitation, compensation, and re-employment of the Ballari mine workers.
The padayatra had been flagged off by the veteran human rights activist Medha Patkar and the Kannada actor and activist Chetan Ahimsa the previous day. The workers intended to submit a memorandum of their demands to the Deputy Commissioner in Bellari the next day. The demands include a payment of Rs.5 lakh to each mining worker who had lost his or her job, re-employment, and payment of pension to workers who had reached the age of superannuation in this period. The workers also demanded that a part of the Rs.19,443 crore collected as fines by the Karnataka government from the mining companies be allocated for their welfare.
Y. Gopi, president of the BZGKS, who is from Deogiri village in Sandur taluk, said, “I worked at the Deccan Mining Syndicate Pvt. Ltd. for 15 years from 1996 as an electrician. The quantum of work increased tremendously from 2003 onwards and we were working 12 hours a day because of the ‘China Boom’ but when the mines were closed in 2011, all the workers were thrown out without any notice and we haven’t been compensated.” Gopi subsequently set up an electrical store in Ballari, but heavy loans forced him to shut his shop.
The ‘China Boom’ refers to the massive demand for iron ore in China as it prepared for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. By 2011, the district had 148 mining leases covering more than 10,000 hectares of land. Illegal mining, too, reportedly, flourished in this period. Two reports submitted by the Karnataka Lokayukta in 2008 and 2011 pointed to the involvement of the Reddy brothers (G. Janardhana Reddy, G. Karunakara Reddy and G. Somashekara Reddy, who are members of the Bharatiya Janata Party), besides politicians across parties and authorities in different departments in this huge scandal. When iron ore mining was halted in the region after the court order and the subsequent arrest of Janardhana Reddy, the worst hit were the thousands of workers who lost their jobs overnight.
Mallikarjun, who is from Ranjitpur village in Sandur taluk, worked as a crusher operator before he lost his job in 2011. “There were no holidays even on festival days and no overtime. Our salaries were a paltry Rs.3,000 or Rs.4,000 a month. There was no concept of safety equipment and we were not even provided with shoes,” he said. “A few years ago, I fell ill because of the effects of working for so many years in the dusty atmosphere of the mines and had to borrow money to pay for my hospitalisation”.
Rajamma of Narsapur village in Sandur taluk worked as a gardener in the premises of a mining company when she was thrown out of her job. “I started work in the mines sorting the pieces of iron ore according to size and worked there for 16 years. My final wage when I was working in the nursery in 2011 was Rs. 105 a day,” she said. K. Babiah, who worked as an excavator operator; Shivkumar, who worked as a load operator; and Amresh, who had grown up in a property alongside an iron-ore mine as his parents worked there, also shared their tales of woe with this correspondent during the march.
Some of the youth participating in the march were representing their parents who had worked in the mines and had passed away in the past 11 years. These young men and women were hopeful that they would be compensated for the dues that remained unpaid to their parents.
T. M. Hussain Peeran of Sandur, who worked at the Zeenath Transport Co. between 2000 and 2011 as a lorry mechanic, said, “When I lost my job, I began to work as a mechanic in Sandur in a garage but things have been tough. Only God knows how my family and I have managed.” What agitated these workers even more than their sudden retrenchment in 2011 was that some mines were gradually reopened over the next few years but those who had worked there were not re-employed. “More than 95 per cent of the workers in the reopened mines are not from Ballari and Vijayanagara or even from other parts of Karnataka but have been brought in from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Assam,” said Gopi.
Peeran mentioned how Zeenath Transport Co., which used to employ 300 workers, is functioning with 150 workers now, all of whom are migrants from other States. Gopi and Peeran suggested that local workers were not being hired because they were members of the BZGKS and the mining companies were reluctant to recruit unionised workers. This, Maitreyi Krishnan, advocate and member of the Karnataka State Committee of the AICCTU, says, is “denial of the retrenched workers’ statutory right to first right under law of re-employment as stipulated in the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.”
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The protesting workers reached Ballari on October 13 and while they failed to meet the Deputy Commissioner of the district, they managed to convey their grievances to Assistant Commissioner Akash S. “The Assistant Commissioner met the protesting workers on the instructions of the Deputy Commissioner and accepted the proposal of the BZGKS that there ought to be a special component for the workers in the (Reclamation and) Rehabilitation Plan (R&R Plans),” said Krishnan, who was present at the meeting.
The R&R plans were based on the guidelines of the Central Empowered Committee which submitted its recommendations to the apex court in 2012. On the direction of the court, the Karnataka Mining Environment Restoration Corporation (KMERC) was established in 2014 to oversee the implementation of a Comprehensive Environment Plan for Mining Impact Zone (CEPMIZ). While the KMERC has come up with a plan that information available on its website says includes “various developmental schemes such as environmental restoration, agriculture and allied activities, irrigation, drinking water, sanitation and rural roads, health, education, development of vulnerable community, housing, skill development, and tourism”, it does not deal with the issues of the retrenched workers.
- Many workers lost their jobs in the iron ore mines spread across Ballari and Vijayanagara districts in July 2011 following a Supreme Court judgment.
- They began walking from Sandur and are going up to Bellari, a distance of about 70 km, demanding compensation for lost jobs.
- The workers are organised under Bellary Zilla Gani Karmikara Sangha.
- The workers also demand that a part of the Rs.19,443 crore collected as fines by the Karnataka government from mining companies be allocated for their welfare.