The ultimate calling of humankind for young adults - the fashion industry attracts millions of people, every year, to the sparkling, radiant faces projected on larger than life billboards endorsing a reasonably priced makeup product.
While beauty products come in all shapes, sizes and varieties, products which give users' skin a subtle shimmering glow have risen in popularity in the past decade and they all share one specific ingredient in common - Mica.
Mica, known as dhebra in India, is often called nature's glitter due to its properties which allow it to be crushed into a sparkling powder. The peculiar appearance of mica paired with its fabulous ability to impart various textures to products has made it almost indispensable to beauty products like blushes, eyeshadows, lip-liners and basically anything sparkling, glossy or textured. While it's almost completely safe to use on skin and relatively cheap, its cost in terms of human misery is exponentially higher.
Mines of Misery
Jharkhand, one of the poorest states in India in terms of annual income of citizens, is extremely rich when talking about natural resources, specifically minerals, and is home to world's largest and some of the globe's finest mica deposits. But it's not the quality of the mineral which attracts large scale mining and intermediaries to purchase mica from here rather, it is the dirt cheap contractual labour.
Investigative journalist Peter Bungsten who has been exploring leads in this region for years says the primary and sometimes only source of income for thousands of families across hundreds of villages is mica mining. Individual families often mine the shimmering mineral and sell it to intermediaries by weight at dismaying rates. No wonder, more than 50% of people in what is arguably the richest mineral state in the country live below the poverty line.
Mica, being extremely abundant, lack of government regulations and excess of people willing to take up the work puts the bargaining power in the hands of the buyers rather than sellers. These intermediaries, through well laid down channels, sell the mined products purchased from the miners into the international market, often bagging exorbitantly higher margins than what the miners would ever get. Infact, unorganised miners are paid less than ₹25 per kilogram of the mineral. On a good day, an entire family of four working from dawn to dusk can collectively earn ₹140 to ₹160. While some try to mine the mineral scraps from the top soil, many have to descend into unstable caves and mine shafts to feed their families.
This system forces mining families to get children even as young as seven years old into working at mines from dawn to dusk. Education, healthcare and even electricity are distant dreams for many such nomad families which set up temporary shelters on forest trails while working at nearby sites. Deprived of any sort of mining equipment, let alone protective gear, miners have to resort to the primitive techniques of mining. Years of clawing through rich plains in search of the shiny mineral renders irreparable damage to workers arms, legs and respiratory systems.
The Downhill Run
But wait, things are even murkier than you'd have thought. Mica mining in Jharkhand is itself illegal in most regions. Enter Forest Conservation Act (1980), a collective result of the Chipko Movement, often romanticized by the imagery of a tribal woman hugging a tree to defend it from felling. Although the Chipko movement took many forms, the law which was implemented coincides with the hardline, radical stance of Sunderlal Bahuguna sect of the movement, in complete disregard to the millions of adivasis who depended on small scale mining and sslling of forest products. Bhaguna stood for hardline conservation of forests, no compromises, unlike Chandi Prasad Bhatt, another prominent but less influential environmentalist active during Chipko Movement, whose environmentalism was (rightly) people centric and focused on regeneration rather than choking industries and by implication, people's livelihoods.
The law came as a curse for many, especially in states like Jharkhand. Amongst other things, what the law essentially did was to designate vast tracts of forests as conservation areas, prohibiting any forest produce from being taken out, even by the indigenous populations whose lives depended on forests, just like the colonists did decades ago. Mica was one such commodity recognised under the same dastardly label of forest produce. Thus, the 20,000 or so miners employed in the Mica industry, mostly adivasis and tribals, fell victim to fundamentalism of the privileged at the pretence of the environment. Overnight, their livelihoods were snatched and they were forced to go underground, depriving them of any worker protections, credits under law, for their profession itself was illegalised. The law also prohibited any and all felling of trees in these areas, including for telephone or electrical lines, thereby forcing the most historically downtrodden groups into further disadvantages until an amendment in 2001 relaxed a few norms about electric lines, hydro power et cetera.
The treasure chest granted by nature which could fuel millions out of poverty became the very instrument of shackling the most unfortunate into the vicious cycle of generational poverty.
The refusal of recognition and organization of this industry due to the Forest Conservation Law, high demand of the mineral and material-sourcing ethics of large corporations which can be described as bargainable at the best, have led to another problem - crime syndicates. The entire Mica mining industry, mostly illegal, runs under the influence of powerful mafias which grant 'protection' to the miners from forest department officials who are tasked with prohibiting what is termed by the law as 'illegal activity' in the dense forests of Jharkhand. In exchange, these mafias get a free pass to run even shadier businesses. In fact, the videographer of CNA Insider, an Singaporean public broadcaster shooting a documentary in these regions was stopped from recording by an alleged syndicate member.
When corporates and companies, especially large ones are questioned over this unethical sourcing of materials, which end up making humongous margins, their go to argument is the inability to pinpoint and track down direct sources. One might wonder, how do the companies, in all their financial might, fail to do something as trivial as differentiating legally or at least ethically mined mica from it's unethical counterpart from merely a few districts in India and the reason is simple - systematic exploitation of loopholes in policies.
You see, companies themselves seldom trade with miners. As mentioned earlier, the mica is sold by the miners to intermediaries who clean the material and forward it to exporters. Unlike mica mining itself, mica processing and exporting is absolutely legitimate in the eyes of law. Exploiting the cheap labour, mica cleaners, sorters and packagers get away with inhumane payments and absolute disregard to worker safety. Mica is capable of being finely powdered. In the dingy sorting cottages which mostly employ women on a daily wage basis, all that stands between the microparticles of mica dust capable of causing permanent respiratory damage and the workers is a layer of pallu of the women's sarees.
It is not far-fetched to say that the lack of ethical supply chains isn't about these industries' abilities rather their interest. Had the Mica industry not been illlegitimized, every worker would have to be paid at least the minimum wage, provided health insurance amongst other excess expenses. As the situation stands today, corporations are happy to cut through these expenses to get cheaper but good quality Mica.
While beauty giants like Lush and L'Oreal have removed mica from it's products and pledged to ensure stricter stances against child labour in it's mining respectively, the same is not true for many other globally recognised brands. Infact, beauty brands like Fenty Beauty, launched by Barbadian singer Rihanna are not even registered with Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI) which seeks to ensure ethical supply chains for the sparkling mineral.
Companies like these, which comply with even the most frivolous laws in their home countries, rake in billions of dollars a year, refuse to be held accountable for systematic human rights violations within their own supply chains, all while talking about 'inclusivity', 'fighting the oppression' and boasting about 'cruelty free' and 'eco-friendly'.
Mitra, A. (1993, April 30). Chipko: an unfinished mission. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/chipko-an-unfinished-mission-30883
Sirur, S. (2021, February 20). Child labour, mine deaths — Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty brings Jharkhand mica back under spotlight. ThePrint. https://theprint.in/india/jharkhands-shining-mica-has-a-dark-side-child-labour-deaths-in-mines-illegal-extractions/608165/
Al Jazeera. (2014, September 21). Ugly truth behind global beauty industry. Child Rights | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2014/9/21/ugly-truth-behind-global-beauty-industry/
CNA Insider. (2021, May 1). The Dark Secret Behind Your Shiny Makeup | Undercover Asia | CNA Documentary [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LS_CR7UwhRs&feature=youtu.be
Anand, A. (2021, February 5). Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty under scanner in India for using Mica frok mines hiring Child Labour. ThePrint. https://theprint.in/india/rihannas-fenty-beauty-under-scanner-in-india-for-using-mica-from-mines-hiring-child-labour/599647/
Responsible Mica Initiative. (2020, January 20). RMI - Programs Legal Framework. https://responsible-mica-initiative.com/programs-rmi/legal-frameworks-rmi#