Reporter Podcast 'It Was Suffocating, and the Ground Was Shaking'

Children are risking their lives in India's illegal mica mines. Journalist Marius Münstermann talks about what he saw and experienced while reporting on the mines -- and how the earth shook with every blow of the pickaxe.
A worker in a mica mine in Jharkand, India.

A worker in a mica mine in Jharkand, India.

Foto: Christian Werner/ Zeitenspiegel

Adventurous trips, unforgettable encounters, anecdotes and impressions from foreign countries: In the Hörweite podcast series , SPIEGEL ONLINE reporters talk about their reporting trips around the globe (in German). In this edition, freelance journalist Marius Münstermann discusses his reporting trip to India's mica-mining belt. Here, you can read an abridged, English-language version of the interview.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mica is a mineral that many companies use to give their products a glimmering sheen. It is what makes lipsticks shimmer and car paint glint, to name two examples. But its origins are anything but beautiful. In India, an estimated 20,000 children work in hundreds of illegal mica mines. Marius, you have seen these mines. Together with photo- and video-journalist Christian Werner, you traveled to a region in northeastern India where entire villages depend almost exclusively on revenues from mica mining . Were you able to simply go there and look at the illegal mines without difficulties? Is their existence such an open secret?

Marius Münstermann : It is an open secret, but that doesn't mean that it's easy to gain access, particularly not as a journalist. A camera, of course, makes you even more conspicuous than we were already. It is a region in the states of Jarkhand and Bihar that almost never sees tourists. From the moment we climbed out of the car, the entire city knew that we were there. Mining there has only been illegal for a brief time. The government, in other words, is trying to crack down on it. But since the ban, the whole operation has simply become more secretive. People now go deeper into the forest to dig their tunnels. Everyone knows that it's the region's main source of income, but nobody is particularly eager to talk about it openly - especially not in front of a camera.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ultimately, though, you found people who work in the mines and were able to go into one of them yourselves. How did you manage that?

Reporter Marius Münstermann (left) and photojournalist Christian Werner.

Reporter Marius Münstermann (left) and photojournalist Christian Werner.

Foto: Christian Werner/Zeitenspiegel

Marius Münstermann : The access we got through a local journalist was key. We drove around with him and he knew where to find the mines in the forest. But the people aren't always in the same place. When the resources are depleted, they move on. That means that you can't just look at a map and say: Today we are driving there and there we will find this. You need to be lucky. And we also needed to make sure that we didn't walk into the arms of the Naxalites, a Maoist rebel movement that partly controls the mica trade. For this reason, our local colleague always checked out the situation first before we then ventured into the forest to take a look, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, the people often ran away the moment they saw us because they thought we were from some sort of special police unit and were coming to arrest them. Finally, we got lucky: We found two mines in which we could film. Mostly with the help of our colleague, who speaks the language, we were able to explain that we weren't there to turn them in and didn't intend to publish their names. As a result, they were eventually willing to talk in front of the camera.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could you briefly describe what the region looks like and what the mines look like?

Marius Münstermann : It's quite arid in Jarkhand and Bihar. The ground is extremely hard, but nevertheless it is covered in forests and it's hilly. The people from the villages go there and try their luck by digging. You can see the mica everywhere: it's glittering all over the place where workers ripped up the earth to pave a road, for example. But you need larger amounts, of course, to make a mine worth the effort. So people dig and, if they hit a vein two meters (six feet) down, they keep digging. Using their hands, shovels and pickaxes, they bore tunnels into the earth and keep going until they find something - six, seven or eight meters deep. The main danger is, of course, is that these tunnels, which are hardly reinforced at all, collapse.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You also went down into a mine. How did that feel?

Marius Münstermann : It was pretty suffocating to go down six or seven meters and watch someone working away with a hammer and an iron bar in the light of a candle - and the ground shaking. I only went down there for a short time, said hello to the workers and then came back out. My colleague Christian had more to do. He was filming down there.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The main character in your story is a boy named Badku, who now no longer works in the mines. Why did he stop?

Marius Münstermann : Badku Marandi is now 16 years old. We got to know him through an NGO that is very active in putting an end to child labor in the region. And he has managed to escape the tunnels. He had to begin working there when he was six years old, because he needed to earn money for his family. When he was eight years old, he was buried alive in a tunnel that collapsed on top of him. He was very lucky to make it out; he broke several ribs in the accident, but survived. Many others don't make it. There are an estimated 20 deaths per month in the mines in that region alone. Precise figures don't exist: Because the work is illegal, hardly any accidents are reported.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But people go into the mines despite the danger, because they don't have any other way to make money?

Marius Münstermann : As I said, it is an extremely dry region. For three months of the year, following the monsoon, they cultivate rice. The hope is that supplies will last the rest of the year, but that's often not the case. That means they are often dependent on rations from the government and the rest of the year, there's not much else to do, even in the cities. Badku was lucky that after the accident, he came into contact with the NGO that financed his schooling. He then became a spokesperson for the school and paved the way for his entire village to combat child labor. Despite all the difficulties, he has managed to ensure that children in his village now go to school instead of into the mines.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You reported from the city of Jhumri Telaiya, one of India's mica hubs. Was there even a hotel there where you could stay? You mentioned that this isn't exactly a tourist region.

Badku Marandi managed to escape the mines. And he is working to help others do so too.

Badku Marandi managed to escape the mines. And he is working to help others do so too.

Foto: Christian Werner/Zeitenspiegel

Marius Münstermann : Yeah, the city has exactly one hotel, which is where we stayed. And it had all the charm of a youth hostel. Except for one businessman, we were the only guests for the entire week.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: I imagine that India is very exciting and foreign, and perhaps also a sensory overload. What was your experience of the country?

Marius Münstermann : We were expecting that, with over a billion people in the country, the cities would be bustling - and they were. Even if Jhumri Telaiya, with its 60,000 to 70,000 inhabitants, isn't a megalopolis like Mumbai or Delhi, there is lots of honking and the streets are full of people. Fundamentally, life there takes place more on the street than it does here.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What sticks with you the most from your trip?

Marius Münstermann : The most memorable aspect was of course the visit to the mines themselves. The narrowness of the tunnels and how the people spend their entire day on a pile of rocks, hour after hour, rearranging and sorting the material, day after day, their whole life long.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are there particular sounds you associate with the trip?

Marius Münstermann : Yes, the hammering inside the tunnel, the impact of the pickaxes and the scraping of the sifters.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about smells? Anything stand out?

Marius Münstermann : An interesting blend of dust, unfiltered diesel fumes and burning plastic garbage.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your story, you describe a particularly tense interview situation with a mica merchant. Only one of the merchants agreed to go in front of the camera, and during the interview, other mica traders surrounded you and commented on what was happening. Was it even possible to get any useful information in such an atmosphere?

Marius Münstermann : The man had invited us to his office for the interview - a storefront that was open to the street where anybody could watch us, and ultimately many did. In other words, we sat there surrounded by 20 to 30 men who constantly interrupted the man we were interviewing when he said something they didn't like. We continued the interview anyway, because we realized that the situation was becoming increasingly unsettled. We found out the reason for that afterwards: We had been back in the hotel for just half an hour when the local journalist who had been helping us showed us messages from his Whatsapp group. The group includes all journalists in the region along with several government officials. The message contained a photo of us doing the interview in the market. It was the point at which it became clear that everyone knew we were there and what we were doing. In that sense, it was good that it was our last day.

Foto: Christian Werner/Zeitenspiegel
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