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Deconstructing the Exploitative Mica Industry

By: Yukta Ramanan, submitted to the Harvard Global Health and Leadership Conference


Background and Statement of Problem:

Mica, a layered mineral phyllosilicate, is chiefly used to create shimmer in cosmetic products. Mica’s dielectric strength and insulating qualities make it an important component of several capacitors and electronics. It’s pearlescent visual effect is also used in printing inks, plastic, and paint. Given the mineral’s natural abundance and ease of acquisition, consumers and corporations continue purchasing it. However, the real issue lies within the mica supply chain, where over 70% of the labor supply comes primarily from the exploitation of children in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in eastern India (Refinery 29). Illegally mined mica is sent to intermediaries in other parts of India, who will then export to China, where factories further process the powder before sending it to cosmetic and industrial manufacturers.

The root cause for mica exploitation is political instability. Naxalite Maoists control much of the state of Jharkhand, the main location for mining, causing the region to have volatile relationships with the government. This leads to a lack of funding for public health infrastructure, leaving citizens with little access to sanitation, clean water, or medical services. The lack of funding also exacerbates inequalities in the education system. Children, seeing no other viable means to support their families, are forced to turn to hard labor in the mines - where their lack of experience does not serve as a barrier to their employment. Perhaps the most telling reason for mica exploitation is poverty. Jharkhand, and neighboring Bihar, have poverty rates between 45 to 70%. Although these regions of the country are rich in mineral deposits, their remote location separates them from urban hubs of growth. Moreover, soil acidity and lack of irrigation prevent local populations from attaining agricultural self sufficiency, thereby increasing their reliance on the unregulated mica market for basic subsistence and wages. With no guarantee of a meal on the table, parents compel their children to work for extra money, regardless of the effects it may have on their wellbeing. Although official statistics about fatalities in the mines have not been gathered due to the illicit nature of mining operations, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan Foundation surveyed eyewitnesses and village testimonials to estimate that over 20 people were killed in the mines every month. However, only around 10% of the fatalities were reported to police. Data regarding mica is highly underestimated, and also do not consider mining related injuries and disease; dust from mines may cause respiratory illness, and rocky working conditions have led to a great deal of physical and psychological trauma.

Apart from the glaring human rights abuses, mica mining also has negative impacts on environmental health. Mining leads to deforestation as lands are cleared to make room for industrial processes. Open pits also lead to soil erosion, and waste water from mining may contaminate soil, groundwater, and surface water. Although the mica supply chain is imbued with unethical sourcing practices, mica’s multidunious uses make the eradication of the industry infeasible. Therefore, the overarching goal of this project is to make the supply chain more sustainable, through a combination of community empowerment and environmental framework.

Community-Based Supply Chain Tracker:

These ventures are carried out through Youth for Ethical Sourcing (YES), an organization working to address ethical sourcing from an environmental, economic, and humanitarian standpoint. This organization was founded by me a year ago, and I’ve had the opportunity to receive mentorship and form partnerships with several industry leaders. These include the Responsible Sourcing Network, Future of Sourcing, and the Responsible Mica Initiative, which works directly with brands like Porsche, Chanel, Loreal, and H&M to ensure workplace standards. In addition to funding, YES also requires mentorship from technical experts and support of state and local governments. To further the objectives of the organization, YES is also accepting voluntary fellowship and directorship applications on a rolling basis.

The core solution is a supply chain management tracker, encapsulated within a database and coupled with a broad range of social and environmental interventions. Villages that have over a 75% dependency on mica for livelihood are chosen and studied for a period of 3-5 years. This statistic also generally indicates higher rates of illiteracy and school dropouts, as well as lack of healthcare. To combat the propagation of misreported statistics and analyze the effectiveness of humanitarian interventions, YES proposes to send volunteers into mica locations, and nearby residential spaces, in order to more accurately survey information about mining fatalities, literacy rates, healthcare, and economic disparity. Mining sites are surveyed on a monthly basis to inspect workplace standards, and are supplemented with a yearly census to determine growth. Metrics of project success are the number of children entering mica workforce, number of mining fatalities, and household income, all of which would be statistically analyzed on separate line graphs. In addition, volunteers plan to use GPS IoT sensors to track the location of raw mica as it travels across the chain so as best to increase real time transparency surrounding illicit intermediary interference in the supply chain (Blume Global). Data would be used to create an Ethical Sourcing Index, which statistically analyzes company supply chains and holds them accountable for their sourcing practices.


Social and Environmental Interventions

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many mica industries reduced their production. This exacerbated socio economic difficulties in mining communities within Bihar and Jharkhand, as individuals lost access to basic health services and schooling. The three prongs of proposed social reform are economic empowerment, education, and healthcare; these prongs are heavily intertwined. Building healthcare clinics, nutritional centers, vaccine delivery systems, and public schools, revitalizes communities, allowing them to put energy into career oriented endeavors without having to worry about basic food security and medical services. Although improvement in education naturally leads to financial stability in the long run, career development resources must also be provided to working age populations in underserved neighborhoods.

Although the proposed solution largely tackles the social aspect of the mica crisis, it is integral to supplement with a scientific and technological component, in order to promote environmental longevity. While sustainable mining research is being conducted, communities can look into soil conservation and waste management. To purify water contaminated with mineral runoff, magnesium ammonium phosphate crystallization is especially promising. It works to recover phosphorus/nitrogen from wastewater and uses recovered minerals in sewage sludge to produce biosolids, which simultaneously power local industries and agricultural development (Science Direct). To combat air pollution, YES encourages the implementation of ralstonia eutropha and further research on its capabilities. Ralstonia Eutropha is a chemolithoautotrophic bacteria that repurposes atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions into clean, renewable energy (Elsevier). Both of the latter pollution solutions utilize pre existing biological raw resources, and there is little need for hefty monetary investment. While YES does not have the organizational capacity or the vertical stratification to provide for such technology and research, it can lobby and support its implementation by affiliating itself with research groups.


Funding, Goals, and Outcomes:

Although YES is a nonprofit organization, it requires significant funding to deploy its initiatives, whether this be providing wages to volunteers, hiring management for operational functioning, or conducting digital media outreach campaigns. To fund beyond donations, YES proposes the creation of a membership agreement. In an era of increased demand for ethical consumerism, companies, who willingly opt into a YES’ membership coalition, agree to not only comply with YES determined workplace standards, but also to allow YES to search through their supply chains. In return for profits gained from the influx of customers, those companies pay membership dues to fund YES enterprises.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate all child labor, and establish robust healthcare and governance systems that reduce the number of mining deaths; knowledge of ethical mica practices must also be disseminated amongst 100% of mica pickers, owners and operators. In previous case studies conducted by the Responsible Mica Initiative, revamping public schools and providing vocational/technical education in a specific village resulted in improved sources of income through alternative means of livelihood including “agriculture, animal husbandry and tailoring.” In addition, over 44% of children were enrolled in school full time.


Conclusion:

YES hopes to work directly with key stakeholders - the people of the villages. By employing native language translators and adaptable infographics, and integrating Panchayat (local self government) voices at all steps of the community empowerment process, YES is able to build a robust system of self sufficiency in which villagers are later able to efficiently handle their worker affairs and education with minimal intervention. The purpose of the database is to provide more accurate statistics regarding sourcing practices, and their effect on social and environmental health. The database also creates more transparency within the supply chain, allowing producers to more consciously choose where they supply their raw materials from. In an age of increased corporate and consumer responsibility, the public is also incentivized to buy from producers with transparent sourcing and labor practices.


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