Treasure Trailhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/treasure-trail/

Treasure Trail

Inside India’s only functioning gold mine,Hutti,where 1,800 miners haul up over 2,000 kg of gold annually.

About 80 km west of Raichur,in the sun-beaten wedge of land between the Krishna and the Tungabhadra rivers,an unlikely town sits on some of the largest viable deposits of gold in India. Hutti in the Lingsugur taluk of north Karnataka is a workaday settlement with a population of about 40,000. A potholed main road that runs the length of the town leads to the 600-acre campus of the state-owned Hutti Gold Mines Ltd (HGML),the primary source of employment here. After the closure of Bharat Gold Mines Ltd in 2001,which operated Kolar Gold Fields,HGML is the lone producer of primary gold — about 2.2 tonne (2,200 kilos a year — in a country whose insatiable appetite for the yellow metal has widened trade deficits. Uti and Hirabuddini,Hutti’s satellite mines,add to the production.

Hutti’s gold reefs — sinuous,parallel veins of ore running like streaks of lightning through the earth — have been mined for over 2,000 years. Going by recent geophysical surveys,they now hold about 150 tonne of gold,mineable to a depth of 3 km. HGML,founded in 1947 as the Hyderabad Gold Mines Company Ltd.,currently mines the reefs to a depth of 731 metres,involving 1,800 men working in three shifts.

We go down the main shaft,the Mallappa shaft — one of three shafts interconnected through tunnels at several underground levels — in a double-deck iron cage built to carry 24 men. The lift comes to an abrupt halt at the 20th level,at a depth of 2,000 ft. A brightly-lit entryway leads to narrower tunnels with cart-tracks. The walls and ceilings are whitewashed and decorated with colourful flags for the festive season. “We try to keep it cheerful here. After all,we spend at least eight hours underground,” says Devappa,a bell man who hoists and lowers miners up and down the level.

The tunnels are a world unto themselves. Fresh air must be pumped in and spent air sucked out. Everywhere,there are wire nets and large bolts affixed to the ceiling to prevent rocks from falling on miners. “In earlier times,miners went directly into the deposit and many lost their lives in accidents,but now,we access it through tunnels from shafts built into waste rock,” says Prabhakar Sangurmath,deputy general manager,exploration,HGML.

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Sangurmath points to a map as if it were a treasure trail — at Rs 3,000 per gram,every speck is indeed treasure — and zeroes in on Uti,which produces medium-quality ore and yields about 2 grams of gold per tonne of ore. Says AK Monnappa,managing director,HGML,“The processing cost has risen to Rs 1,900 per gram. At current gold prices,it is viable to mix the ore from Uti and Hutti to get an average grade of 2.5-3 grams per tonne.”

Deep down in the mines,gold isn’t available as one would imagine. At the Middle Reef,one of six reefs currently mined at Hutti,the light grey rock has vague golden patches — the sign of reasonably high-grade ore. Rarely,miners come upon rich deposits with visible gold in them. One such rock,stored under lock and key in a strong room,weighs 5.7 kg,an estimated 30 per cent of which is pure gold. A surreal spray of gold marks one facet of the rock,recovered in 1980.

The 400 employees of the metallurgy dep-artment have a specific mandate: to process 2,000 tonne of ore per day. Ore,broken into large stones inside the mines,is first crushed and then ground into fine dust. Heavier particles are easily separated from this dust mixed with water,the rest of the gold is dissolved in a cyanide solution and later absorbed using carbon. Finally,it is smelted and poured into graphite casts where impurities separate into glass-like waste,leaving gold at the bottom.

It is lunch hour and workers gather under the vintage signboard of Mallappa shaft,chatting in Kannada,Tamil,Telugu and Hindi.

P Parthiban,a 52-year-old supervisor,says he misses home. Home is Kolar Gold Fields,where a gold mining operation went on for over a century,employing 35,000 workers at its peak. After a stint there,where his wife and children still live,Parthiban moved to Hutti 18 years ago. The HGML campus,where half of Hutti’s population resides,has clubs,schools,medical and other facilities,yet many prefer to come here alone. “This place is far from civilisation,” Parthiban says.

R Dhanasekaran,56,from Vellore,says he can’t imagine doing anything else after working in the mines of Hutti for 36 years. In 1988,his father,Ramakrishnan,died in an accident at the Central shaft. “I thought about leaving then,but I don’t know any other life. Also,the salary and benefits are good these days — a beginner can get Rs 12,000 a month,” he says.

Safety standards at Hutti have improved since his father died. In 2002,there had been 269 accidents. A decade later,there were 36,none of them “serious”. Still,mining is an industry with high attrition rates. “We hiked wages by 24 per cent last year. Workers also draw a hardship allowance,” says Monnappa.

India consumes almost 900 tonne of gold in a year,and the high prices and import duties have not made a significant dent in the demand for gold. HGML wants to scale up operations quickly. “We want to produce five tonne of gold per annum. We have submitted 14 proposals to the Centre for mining leases in and around Hutti,” Monnappa says.

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At Mallappa shaft,excavation work is now in progress at the 28th level. The golden glow of Hutti’s landscape at sunset,dominated by mining shafts and their winding gears,seems symbolic of good times to come.