My forester friend is finalising my visit to Sona Wani forest in Lal Barra Range of Balaghat Forest Division in the backyard of Madhya Pradesh. By the way, he asks me, “Will you like to see a Manganese mine?” I am not able to say yes or no immediately, as this is something out of blue. In my 60 plus years, I have not seen a Manganese mine or for that matter, any other mine closely from inside. I say, “Yes!” with excitement – something really new.
We start at 9 am and reach Balaghat town around 11 am – 100 km drive from Seoni. All things are grand and protocol is followed. Accordingly, we can proceed further only after tea, which has been arranged at Balaghat FRH. The mine is another 8 km. A senior forester has arranged permission and guided tour for us.
In the meanwhile, I Google for Manganese mine and gather ‘Bharveli Manganese mine in Balaghat district is largest and deepest underground mine operating in Asia.’ Wow! Underground mine, another surprise.
The industry is big. It is evident from the highway itself. I can see huge residential colony to begin with, and a massive entrance gate. There is elaborate security process, which takes about 10 minutes!
As we proceed to underground mine manager’s office (which is on the surface only) the pollution is evident. All plants and trees have turned blackish with industrial dust covering the leaves and canopies. So, is the situation with buildings and vehicles.
We are expected became evident when we reach the manager’s office. Though, there is no body in the boss seat, but one person joins and welcomes us. He is wearing a helmet. His shirt is torn at one place and soiled with some blackish stuff. He is wearing gum boots. He welcomes us and introduces himself, “I am senior engineer”. I am taken aback – what modesty! Soon water and tea are severed. Alongside, we are dressed for the mine visit – helmet, a mountable torch with battery strapped around waist with leather belt, gum boots, and blue gown! ‘Do I look like a clown?’ I think.
Soon a young man, a junior engineer, is introduced to us. He will be our escort and guide in the mine. First thing he tells us as we walk to a crude gate, “we are going down about 1000 ft. To be precise it is 383 m.” I make some mental calculation and am amazed to realise that this means virtually 125 floors down the ground! The mathematics shakes me a bit. Second thing he tells us, “There are levels in mine. We are going to 12th level, though there are levels below this also.” I think, “Oh my god, are they digging to the core of the earth!!”
When the crude gate is opened, I realise that we are entering some kind of lift around 5 ft x 7 ft. There are rails fitted on the floor i.e. this is used for transportation of material and machinery also! It is largely open from all sides with some filmy wire mesh and tin walls. All is summed up in the name of the device – it is called ‘Cage!’
We keep going down and down. Water is dripping from all sides and some drops splash on us. After every half a minute or so, there is some light appearing. This is from the level of the mine we cross. It has been 5-6 minutes but looks much longer when we reach 12th level and we walk out of the cage into a different world.
The mine floor is fitted with rails for transportation of ore and other material. It is slushy with accumulating fine dust, ore spillage and seepage water. There is about four feet space besides the rail to walk along. There is a channel on one side, where mine seepage water is rushing to a point from where it is drawn out. Otherwise, the mine can get flooded. On the sides, there are number of pipes of various size and colour carrying whatnot. The ceiling is low. But what is worrying, there are jutting rocks here and there. As a reflex action, I am ducking all along to save my head and mind. The engineer shows us how ceiling is managed from falling with fixing of more than an inch thick bolts and iron plates all over.
The engineer assures that all is perfect science, and all standards and guidelines are followed, indirectly reassuring us to relax and enjoy. We are walking carefully, watching the floor – so as not to slip, step on uneven ground or topple on rail, and avoid falling into the side channel; keeping an eye on ceiling – avoid jutting rocks, loose hanging lights and pipes. We pass by a room dug out in the side wall, decorated with gods and goddesses photos, one bench to lie on, a table, a stool etc. The engineer tells us, “This is primary health care point.” To me, it looks like primitive health care point. We pass another hole in the side which is emergency communication point.
When we entered the floor, it has been surprisingly cool, breezy and pleasant. As we go farther, it becomes warmer and humid, but quite tolerable.
The engineer stops at a point, where a cranky and narrow temporary iron stair is installed. He tell us this is going up one level and from there, again to another level where actual mining is happening –drilling, blasting and material shifting. “No, we cannot go up. Its 15 m up the stairs and difficult,” the engineer tells us. We can image this from frequent, loud noise of falling material. On the opposite side, some ten metres away, he shows us a hopper from where the produced material slides down from mining level and is collected in small 1.2 tonne bogies. It’s all complicated arrangement.
It must have been 600-700 m to the last point. We start back and as we near the exit, we see the final exiting part of the mine – a mini train, a small electric engine pulling half a dozen 1.2-tonne bogies. It is returning after transporting material to a point from where it is shifted to the surface by a lift.
As we stand waiting for the cage, in the adjacent section there is ore lying. The engineer picks up a small rock to show the colour and texture of Manganese ore – a steel grey-green smooth rock with blackish dust sticking to it. I pocket this as a souvenir.
On the way back, in the car, I look at the souvenir in clear sun light. I realise that bit of Manganese has rubbed on my trouser pocket, hands as well as shirt! I also realise, I am carrying the metal in my mind, and here it is.
Madhya Pradesh is rich in manganese ore, mainly spread in Balaghat, Chhindwara and Jhabua districts. The “Bharveli manganese mine” in Balaghat district is largest and deepest underground mine operating in Asia. The manganese ore deposits of the State are being extracted mainly by the Manganese Ore India Limited (MOIL). MOIL was originally set up as “Central Province Prospecting Syndicate” in the year 1896 in the region of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It was later renamed as “Central Provinces Manganese Ore Company Limited (CPMO)” in 1935. In 1962, the Government of India took over the mining activities from CPMO. MOIL operates 10 mines, six located Nagpur and Bhandara districts of Maharashtra and four in the Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh.