Hoe and hammer in hand, Ramdhun Murmu (name changed), 25, risks his life every day deep inside pits on the scraggly mountain ridges of Gudabanda in Jharkhand along with hundreds of tribal youngsters.
By evening, these farmers-turned-labourers hand over several rough green stones that they’ve dug up to an armed group of self-styled “mine supervisors”. Murmu and the others get little more than the minimum wage of about `100 they would earn while working under a government employment guarantee scheme.
They have no idea of the value of the emeralds they mine in East Singhbhum district, but in the jewellery markets of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, these stones fetch `3500 per carat (0.2mg) after being cleaned and polished.
Welcome to India’s new emerald mining hub at Gudabanda. But unlike the country’s only other emerald mine at Udaipur in Rajasthan, the mining in Gudabanda is controlled wholly by a nexus of smugglers patronised by Maoist rebels.
The CPI (Maoists) is believed to earn more than `200 crore every year from illegal levies on mine owners and contractors implementing government projects, and a report from the police’s special branch estimated that proceeds from the emerald mining are adding `25 lakh to `35 lakh to the coffers of the rebels every month.
Law enforcement agencies, instead of taking action against the illegal activity and preventing the smuggling of the gems, prefer to look the other way. They too allegedly get a huge cut from the illegal trade, say local residents.
The mining activity began in 2010 and some 400 labourers now work the rocky ridges in a nine-kilometre stretch of Gudabanda, located just 215 km from the state capital. A gang of smugglers transports the precious stones to polishing hubs and markets in other states.
The emeralds are extracted from open pits dug with hoes and shovels that go as deep as 100 to 150 feet. Some 65 pits are operated under the watchful eyes of the rebels at Parwah Pahar in Barunmuthi village, located close to the border with Odisha.
The issue has rocked the state assembly in Ranchi on more than one occasion. A few conscientious politicians have urged the government’s immediate intervention to acquire the mine but their demands have fallen on deaf ears.
Speaking in the assembly recently, local legislator Kunal Sarangi refrained from blaming the Maoists but said a very powerful group of people is involved in smuggling the stones.
HT travelled to the area where the emeralds are mined but was stopped in the foothills by some burly men posing as members of local vigilante groups. “Police does not dare come here. How could you brave the risk?” asked one of the men, who said the team should go back immediately.
Around 20km from the site is the Gudabanda police station, where officials pretended to be ignorant about the illegal activity.
“The illegal mining activity you are talking about happens on a very small scale and detecting it is too difficult,” said Arjun Purty, the officer-in-charge.
One of Purty’s predecessors, Sanjay Kumar, was suspended in 2013 for allegedly conniving with Maoists and precious stone smugglers. He was also accused of negligence for leading a troop of 22 personnel to the mining site without following standard operating procedures. One personnel died during the operation when the Maoists triggered a landmine.
As the illegal mining fills the war chests of the Maoists, workers like Murmu can only dream of striking it rich.
“We hear that our sahibs (the Maoists) earn a lot of money. We are at the bottom of the ladder and earning `150 a day,” said Murmu.
The Maoists have openly taken responsibility for running the illegal mining of emeralds, declaring through pamphlets that the activity is aimed at the welfare of the people and has ensured employment in the region.
In the past two years, there have been only three seizures of illegally mined emeralds. Sources claimed several seizures have gone unreported and the precious stones allegedly made their way into the homes of senior officials of the police force and local administration.
“We are getting an assessment of emerald reserves done,” deputy commissioner Amitabh Kaushal said.“Once it’s over, we will implement the new ordinance amending mines and mineral development and regulation act of 1957.”