About 80 km west of Raichur, in the sun-beaten wedge of land between the Krishna and the Tungabhadra rivers, an unlikely town sits on some of the largest viable deposits of gold in India. Hutti in the Lingsugur taluk of north Karnataka is a workaday settlement with a population of about 40,000. A potholed main road that runs the length of the town leads to the 600-acre campus of the state-owned Hutti Gold Mines Ltd (HGML), the primary source of employment here. After the closure of Bharat Gold Mines Ltd in 2001, which operated Kolar Gold Fields, HGML is the lone producer of primary gold — about 2.2 tonne (2,200 kilos a year — in a country whose insatiable appetite for the yellow metal has widened trade deficits. Uti and Hirabuddini, Hutti’s satellite mines, add to the production.
Hutti’s gold reefs — sinuous, parallel veins of ore running like streaks of lightning through the earth — have been mined for over 2,000 years. Going by recent geophysical surveys, they now hold about 150 tonne of gold, mineable to a depth of 3 km. HGML, founded in 1947 as the Hyderabad Gold Mines Company Ltd., currently mines the reefs to a depth of 731 metres, involving 1,800 men working in three shifts.
We go down the main shaft, the Mallappa shaft — one of three shafts interconnected through tunnels at several underground levels — in a double-deck iron cage built to carry 24 men. The lift comes to an abrupt halt at the 20th level, at a depth of 2,000 ft. A brightly-lit entryway leads to narrower tunnels with cart-tracks. The walls and ceilings are whitewashed and decorated with colourful flags for the festive season. “We try to keep it cheerful here. After all, we spend at least eight hours underground,” says Devappa, a bell man who hoists and lowers miners up and down the level.
The tunnels are a world unto themselves. Fresh air must be pumped in and spent air sucked out. Everywhere, there are wire nets and large bolts affixed to the ceiling to prevent rocks from falling on miners. “In earlier times, miners went directly into the deposit and many lost their lives in accidents, but now, we access it through tunnels from shafts built into waste rock,” says Prabhakar Sangurmath, deputy general manager, exploration, HGML.
Sangurmath points to a map as if it were a treasure trail — at Rs 3,000 per gram,