Her face caked in dirt and hair matted with sweat, eight-year-old Lalita Kumari hacks away at pieces of rock containing an elusive mineral that adds a dash of sparkle to lipstick and nail polish.
While taking a breather in the hollow of a shimmery sand hill, Lalita says she has not known any other way of life after toiling in the mines of Jharkhand since she was aged four.
“I want to go to school but there is never enough at home for us to eat. So I have to come here and work,” said the pony-tailed youngster, her blistered hands hid behind her back after laying down her pickaxe.
Lalita is among hundreds of children who help their families make ends meet by spending their day collecting mica, their stomachs often hungry while the sun beats down on their heads.
Two decades ago the Jharkhand government shut down the mines over environmental concerns but tonnes of scrap left behind continue to lure impoverished villagers.
The mica adds glitter to powders, mascara and lipsticks of top global brands although a complex supply chain makes pinning down the exact origin almost impossible, say activists.
The families of the children who collect the mica often sell it to small traders who in turn sell it to big suppliers.
In 2009, German pharma giant Merck was accused of using mica mined by children and supplying it to brands such as L’Oreal and Revlon.
Merck has since implemented several measures to make sure that “all mica used for the manufacture of our pigments comes from child labour free sources,” the company said in a statement to AFP.
Ugly side of beauty
Activists however say remote areas make monitoring impossible and there is no way to guarantee the mica is child-labour free.
“I think for companies the situation has become a kind of passing the buck,” said Bhuvan Ribhu of Bachpan Bachao Andolan NGO whose founder Kailash Satyarthi won last year’s Nobel peace prize for his work combatting child labour.
“It’s a collective responsibility of anyone who is procuring any mica from this region to come forward and ensure that all the children are in school,” Ribhu told AFP.
Major companies insist their suppliers follow good practices.
“Merck, our main supplier in India, only sources mica from legal gated mines and has submitted proof that its entire supply chain is secured,” a spokeswoman for L’Oreal said in an email to AFP.
Repeated mails by AFP to Revlon, which is also supplied by Merck, went unanswered.
Although child labour below 18 is illegal with fines and jail terms for offenders, poor enforcement means rules remain on paper.
Children like Lalita often injure themselves with the pickaxes, while fine mica dust enter their eyes and chest, causing chronic health problems.
During the annual monsoon, they risk snake bites and being buried alive by collapsing slag piles.
“In a place where poverty is so entrenched it is difficult to convince parents to send kids to school,” said Ram Bachan Paswan, a district labour superintendent.
“Moreover these mines do not exist on paper so that makes our task very challenging.”
Father-of-four Shibu Yadav acknowledges that his children spend their days mining for mica to keep the family’s heads above water.
“This is the main source of livelihood for us,” he said, pointing at glittering silver and red mounds outside his ramshackle house.
“If it had not been for the mica, we would have starved to death,” said Yadav who says his family makes about 1,000 rupees ($17) a month from mica gathering.
Back to school
Cosmetic giants such as Estee Lauder and Chanel have recently joined a scheme to help fund the education of children going back to schools, working alongside Satyarthi’s NGO.
Thirteen-year-old Seema Kumari says she can now fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.
But she is one of the lucky ones and other youngsters see no end in sight to their labours.
“We know mica is used in powder and lipstick,” said Pushpa Kumari, whose weathered features belie her 13 years.
“It makes women look prettier,” she said, balancing a tray full of mica on her head. “But look what it does to us.”