Kolar Gold Fields is a gold mine! No, seriously, it’s actually a gold mine. Located in Karnataka, India, Kolar Gold Fields–or KGF for short–is a forgotten story for most, but the memory of its glory days endures for all who lived there. Its significance in India’s history, as well as that of Great Britain’s, cannot be understated. It contributed largely to the success and prosperity of the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Unfortunately, this once-thriving city is but a shadow of its former glory.
Michael F. Lavelle was an Irish soldier who explored Kolar to find out if the legends that the land had a lot of gold were true. In discovering the legends were true, Lavelle obtained sole mining rights to the area from the Mysore British government in 1873. Soon after, he decided to sell his rights to Kolar Concessionaires Soft Corporation and Arbuthnot Company of Madras. Kolar Concessionaires Soft Corporation eventually became The Gold Fields of Mysore Company.
John Taylor and Sons
The British engineering company, John Taylor and Sons, bought the rights to mine in KGF from The Gold Fields of Mysore Company in 1880. The area flourished under the British company. Foreigners from all over the world came to Kolar to work in the mines. It also provided a lot of opportunities for locals in the area.
According to Bridget White, the author of Kolar Gold Fields Down Memory Lane: Paeans To Lost Glory, the first shaft was sunk in 1883 and named the Champion Reef Mine. It is the “second longest and deepest gold mine in the world” (White 15). Many other mines were created in KGF before being consolidated into four big gold mines.
After opening in the 1880s, the district of Kolar was thrusted into the modern era as the first Indian city to receive electricity. The mine received electric power in 1902 through Shivanasamudra Falls, a waterfall created by the Cauvery River.
The establishment of electricity in 1902 allowed the bungalows and homes of miners as well as the rest of KGF to receive power. Miners also received drinking water in their homes. KGF had a population of 90,000 and 24,000 employees working in the mines during its peak in the 1920s (White 37).
The townships Roberstonpet and Andersonpet were established in 1902 and 1904. Likewise, churches, schools, hospitals, and shops were created. KFG also had a vibrant social scene with the development of elite golf clubs and other recreational spaces.
During the initial years under JohnTaylor and Sons, “epidemics [such as] plague and cholera were [ ] rampant due to poor working conditions” (White 17). Additionally, miners often dealt with explosives and worked in temperatures that left their bodies burned. Eventually, working conditions improved; shafts were cooled and some safety equipment was provided for the miners. The hospitals were also well equipped to address the various medical needs of the miners.
Working in the mine was extremely dangerous and many died. Rock bursts frequently buried miners alive and damaged buildings and houses in the area. Miners also died or were incapacitated by fires, flooding, explosions, and various work-related incidents.
While John Taylor and Sons and Great Britain were making a fortune off of the gold, working and living conditions were still poor for the miners. Because of this, protests and strikes were held in 1928 and 1930, leading to the creation of labor unions in the 1940s (White). The workers also joined the fight against the British and played a pivotal role in gaining Indian independence.
Most of the Europeans left KGF when India attained independence from the British in 1947. Many of the once-bustling stores closed shortly after the remaining British families left the area in 1956.
India’s central government gave the mines to the Government of Mysore. After a few years, the Government of Mysore “requested the Central government to take over the running of the mines once again” (White 62). Even with the presence of labor unions and the government taking control of the mines from John Taylor and Sons, conditions didn’t improve.
The mine became a public sector undertaking in 1972 and the name was eventually changed to Bharat Gold Mines Limited (BGML). Mining operations ceased in 2001, though gold still remains in the area. The company struggled financially due to the Indian government, the cost of mining, and dwindling gold reserves. The gold extracted from KGF was sold exclusively to the Reserve Bank of India at rates less than the market value, which had rendered the operations unprofitable.
Many of the defining structures synonymous with its glory days are now closed down or slowly deteriorating. Although many families still live there and utilize many of these historic buildings, the place remains a shell of its former glory under John Taylor & Sons.
As a result of the mining, seismic activity is prevalent in the area. Earthquakes and rockbursts occur after rainfall and as a result of other stressors on the rocks within the mine.“Inundation leaves an unstable condition in the underground mines prone to sudden violent rockbursts with increasing or decreasing water table level.” This remains a concern for the people in KGF as seismic events can cause serious property damage or loss of life.
Many discussions have centered around resuming gold extraction in the area, with the most recent one being in 2020. Talks of reopening the mines were also held in 2009, 2013, and 2017. While nothing appears to have been done as of 2023, resuming mining in the old mines would be especially difficult and costly due to the waste and water that has built up in them.
Re-opening the mines does not appear to be a viable solution. Despite that, the residents of KGF continue to face socio-economic difficulties and poverty. The closure of the mines due to the government’s poor management left workers with no source of income and numerous workers receiving meager or no pension. Residents are forced to either move or travel long distances to jobs in other cities just to make ends meet. Many are left without electricity or clean drinking water.
Hardened hills of dust called Cyanide Dumps created from the mining process remain a serious health hazard to KGF residents, causing lung cancer, allergies, and respiratory illnesses. “The cyanide dumps are covered by a cloud of dust and reek of sulfur dioxide, causing air pollution.” The old hospitals are abandoned, forcing people to seek help elsewhere. In addition, “chemicals from the dump seep into the water tanks and fertile agricultural lands. “This has made the land infertile.”
There are many structural, environmental, and socio-economic concerns faced by the remaining KGF population. Re-opening the mines would certainly exacerbate some of these issues, but steps should be taken to clear the waste left from the mine operations. The infrastructure and businesses should also be restored, in addition with action to create new job opportunities for residents.
White, Bridget. Kolar Gold Fields: Down Memory Lane ; Paeans to Lost Glory!! AuthorHouse, 2010.
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