It was lunch break at the New Amtipani bauxite mine, operated by the Aditya Birla Group subsidiary Hindalco, in the flat-topped plateaus of Jharkhand’s Gumla district. Several Asur Adivasi men who worked there waited in a line outside the supervisor’s office, instead of heading home to their village in the nearby forest for their afternoon meal as they usually did.
Three months ago, the supervisor had installed a fingerprint scanning machine in the office and instructed the miners to mark their attendance on it.
The biometric-based system, increasingly common in offices in cities across the country, had arrived in remote Amtipani deep inside Gumla’s Netarhat forests as well. But while office-goers mark their attendance when they reach their workplace in the morning or leave for home in the evening, the Amtipani miners had to get their fingerprints scanned on the little black machine four times every day, or they would lose the day’s wage.
Budhna Asur, a middle-aged miner, said he woke up at 4 am every morning to work on his small plot of paddy. He then reached the mine at 7.45 am to mark his attendance. “Then at 12.45 pm, before we go for lunch, we have to scan our fingerprints on the device, and then do it again at 2 pm, and then at 6 pm,” he said.
Jeevan Asur said the mine management had installed the biometric system after all 170 employees had struck work for a month last August to negotiate an increase in their wages. “We told the management, we have worked in the mine for eight years, increase our pay from the unskilled work grade of Rs 247 per day to at least Rs 500,” said the miner. “They increased it to Rs 307, a semi-skilled grade and just half of our demand. On top of that, we were told that if you don’t put your thumb into the new machine four times a day, be prepared to be paid the old rate.”
The Asur Adivasis draw their lineage from the buffalo demon Mahishasur, and were portrayed as demons and enemies of gods in prominent Hindu texts. They are also credited with being the country’s first community of iron smelters. Today, they are one of India’s dwindling Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, and one of the smallest Adivasi groups in Jharhand. Asuri, their language, is on the verge of extinction, with less than 8,000 people speaking it.
New mining technologies, and forest laws that restrict the forest-dwelling Asur from burning wood to produce the charcoal used in their smelting work have slowly made their traditional means of livelihood redundant. For the last eight years, the 200-odd Asur Adivasi families living in the villages of Ghorapahad, Sekuapani and Amtipani in Gumla have worked at Hindalco’s bauxite mines. The Asur inventors, the kings of the forest kingdom, have become daily-wage workers in their ancestral land.
In Ghorapahad, nearly all the men work at the mine. The women and children spend several hours a day carrying water from three kilometers away, and tend to what remains of their agricultural land, covered under layers of excavated red mine dust. Phaguni Mundain, one of the women, said the produce has dropped by a third over the years.
Pusa Asur, who works at the New Amtipani mine, still remembers watching his forefathers “smelt iron out of stone”.
“We made our own tools – khulaarhi, paal, pharsa, teer (axe, plough, spade, arrow) – for hunting and farming,” he said. “There are still two to three men in Ramdharia hamlet who know how to smelt stone and extract metal. Any tool you can think of, they could make.”
But now, the manual process would be too slow and its results too small compared to the current rate of production, he added.
Fellow miner Budhna Asur, who worked at construction sites in cities for a few months some years ago, said he had seen the tools Pusa spoke of. “The tools the Asur and Birhor [a nomadic group] made are displayed at the Ranchi museum,” he said. “I saw them in 1995 on a trip to the city.”
Lunch break over, it was soon time for the men to head back to the mine and line up to mark their biometric attendance, again.
All images by Anumeha Yadav