The good earth of golden Hutti

Bangalore, Vijay Times, 14th June 2004 :

About 480 kms north of Bangalore lies the golden village of Hutti. At night, the village sleeps in silence and with dawn welcomes numerous mining geologists hoping to find yet another gold reserve.

Geologists from both Indian and foreign mining companies explore this area frequently, pinning their hopes every stone they turn and often strike it rich.

For 3000 years, the villagers of Hutti have known that they are sitting on one of the richest gold fields in India and gold mining has been known to them since Emperor Ashoka’s time. Though modern gold mining in Hutti commenced in 1947, the year India got independence from the British, the protective mining policies restrained development of the gold fields.

India has long been the site of gold mining. Large-scale gold mining began with the Mauryan colonization of the Deccan about the end of the 4th century BC. The discovery of world-renowned Kolar gold fields dates back to the beginning of the Christian era and probably coeval with that of the Hutti gold fields. Since then, numerous gold prospects were started with a plethora of (mostly British) companies – 11 in Kolar area, four in Hutti, 10 in Gadag and 33 in Wyanad area. Production of gold from 1977-1998 has been about 19 tonnes from Kolar, 2 tonnes from Ramagiri and 21 tonnes from Hutti gold fields.

Experts opine that the Hutti gold mine has a reserve of 152 tonnes of gold in the proven, possible and potential categories at an average grade of 4.85 grammes per tonne, of which about 48 tonnes of gold has been produced till date. Mining industrialists say that barely 8000 of the Karnataka’s greenstone belt spread over 40,000 has been explored and this area could well yield 15-20 tonnes of gold a year.

As the Indian government had earlier banned private sector from mining exploration, mining activity was a State monopoly till 1993 when the Mining and Mineral Development and Regulation Act was amended to allow private participation. “Even after privatization, we are having procedural delays in getting Reconnaissance Permits (RPs) to start the operations. But the villagers are very helpful in sharing the history and taking us to locations where civilizations earlier existed,” says Dr. Vasudev, a geologist with Deccan Gold Mines.

Deccan Gold Mines Limited is one of the successful gold mining companies and the only listed company in India that has invited public investment in the gold mining sector.

There have been more than 30 new applications from domestic and foreign majors for RPs, and the allure of Karnataka’s gold and diamond prospects is growing. Nearly a dozen applications were from Australian mining company BHP Billiton and other applications included Indophil, NMDC, Hutti Gold Mines Ltd (HGML) and Hindustan Zinc Ltd.

It is ironical that India, the largest market for gold in the world (about 800 tonnes a year) is also one of the most insignificant producers with 20 million tones of proven, possible and potential gold ore reserves! India produces three tonnes of gold, while Australia, which shares a close geological relation with India, mines 280 tonnes a year.

The State-owned HGML, despite having a rich ore supply and monopoly in exploration and mining, was a loss-making company till recently due to high cost of production. Now, within three years, production has shot up from 240 kg to 335 kg a month, and the company was able to record profits. Company officials say the Hutti-Maski pre-Cambrian greenstone belt is rich in gold deposits.

Gold exploration is a costly venture. Gold miners admit that Rs 10-15 crore is required to survey a 100 block of land, and it may end up with no trace of gold. But global mining majors such as Rio Tinto, BHP Bilton and De Beers are watching India closely. Most likely they will strike it rich in Karnataka.