By: Nita Bhalla
Posted on: 8 August 2016
In the depths of India's illegal mica mines, where children as young as five work alongside adults, lurks a dark, hidden secret - the cover-up of child deaths with seven killed in the past two months, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation has revealed.
Investigations over three months in the major mica producing states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh found child labour rife, with small hands ideal to pick and sort the valued mineral that puts the sparkle in cosmetics and car paint.
But interviews with workers and local communities discovered children were not only risking their health by working in abandoned "ghost" mines off official radars, but they were dying in the unregulated, crumbling mines, with seven killed since June.
In the mud-and-brick village of Chandwara in Bihar in eastern India, a father's grief laid bare the ugly reality of the illegal mining that accounts for an estimated 70 percent of India's mica output.
Vasdev Rai Pratap's 16-year-old son Madan was killed in a mica mine along with two other adult workers in the neighbouring state of Jharkhand on June 23.
"I didn't know how dangerous the work in the mines is. Had I known, I would never have let him go," said Pratap, sitting on a charpoy - a traditional woven bed - outside his home, surrounded by friends and family who had come to mourn the teen's death.
"They said it took almost a day to dig out his body after the mine collapsed. They cremated him without telling me. I didn't even see my boy before they set him alight."
Pratap, like other victims' families and mine operators, has not reported the death, choosing to accept a payment for his loss rather than risk ending the illegal mining on protected forest land that brings income to some of India's poorest areas.
The farmer said he was promised a 100,000 rupee ($1,500) payment from the operator of the mine but has yet to receive it.
The mine where Madan was working is illegal, and no one was available to comment on the teenager's death.
Indian law forbids children below the age of 18 working in mines and other hazardous industries but many families living in extreme poverty rely on children to boost household income.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation findings were backed up by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi's child protection group Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) - or Save the Childhood Movement - which documented over 20 mica-related deaths in June - including that of Madan and two other children - double the monthly average.
BBA discovered four children were killed in July.
India is one of the world's largest producers of the silver-coloured, crystalline mineral that has gained prominence in recent years as an environmentally-friendly material, used by major global brands in the car and building sector, electronics and make-up.
Collection of watchdog reporting from India