India’s Stone Quarries Are Sounding The Death Knell For Their Workers
Tuberculosis and Silicosis are killing innumerous stone quarry and mine workers in the country; both private companies and the government are flouting the law and not taking adequate preventive measures or providing compensation.
On the eve of World Tuberculosis Day, it is worth noting that India has the highest occurrence rate of the disease in the world, with an estimated 27.9 lakh patients. The government hopes that its strategic plan will eradicate the disease by 2025. It is difficult to tell whether this deadline will be met or not. In the meantime, not a lot is being done to protect and compensate stone quarry workers and mine workers, groups most vulnerable to tuberculosis (TB). Akbarpur, in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand, a region known for its stone quarries and crushing units, is a case in point.
When Community Correspondent Ramlal Baiga visited Akbarpur, he found that almost every household in Akbarpur has a patient suffering from TB. But what looms larger than the threat of TB in Akbarpur is the threat of silicosis, a disease whose symptoms are very similar to those of TB, but a disease that has no cure. Silicosis is recognised as an occupational disease and a large number of workers, between 3-10 million, are estimated to be vulnerable to the disease. It is caused by the presence of silica in the immediate environment, the inhalation of which affects the lungs. Silica sand is one of the primary minerals found in Chitrakoot, the district Akbarpur falls in.
The Health Department in Chitrakoot has diagnosed the patients in Akbarpur as TB patients, but no test has been carried out for silicosis, which is a notified disease, meaning that patients can claim compensation for it.
“Even when we sleep at night, a layer of dust (silica dust) settles on us”, says Bharat, who lost one of his children to what the doctors diagnosed as tuberculosis. He adds that the food and water are also contaminated with the dust. While no health camps are organised to test the local residents for silicosis, no regular check-ups are held for TB tests either.
When Ramlal spoke to Gyanchandra Shukla at the district hospital, he said that those diagnosed with the disease are being treated under the government’s DOTS programme or the TB control strategy recommended by the World Health Organisation. Shukla, who is the district coordinator of the government’s Programmatic Management of Drug-Resistant TB/HIV, also said that TB is primarily linked to lifestyle and sanitation. When asked about the occurrence of silicosis, he said that he does not know of any cases in the area but if a case does surface, the person will be tested. The district hospital, however, does not have the resources to test for silicosis.
In areas with high prevalence of silicosis, like parts of Gujarat, the National Human Rights Commission has taken cognizance and the Supreme Court has directed the state government to pay a compensation amount of 3 lakh to the families of the victims. However, state governments have tried resisting the court’s directive. In some places, the workers have been unable to claim compensation under the Workers Compensation Act or the Employees State Insurance Act because they have no identity cards to prove that they have been employees of these stone crushing units. The battle to get compensation, therefore, opens another Pandora’s box altogether.
According to a Khabar Lahariya report published on Scroll.in, a local resident claims that only 25-35% of the stone crushing machines in the vicinity of Akbarpur are operated by licensed contractors. Why is the government not cracking down on or regulating these private companies? In March 2016, the stone crushing machines were banned after some of the workers lost their lives to accidents in the quarries. But the government lifted the ban after a year, presumably under the influence of the quarry owners who were clearly flouting the laws. Moreover, the lift came as a relief for many workers who have no source of livelihood other than the stone quarries despite the fact that they are killing them.
Silicosis is a notified disease under the Mines Act and the Factories Act and the WHO has recommended making it notifiable under the Public Health Act as well so that reporting it becomes mandatory. It has also recommended mandatory silicosis tests for workers every six months and integration of the silicosis control programme with the TB control programme.
Where the government should focus on regulating private companies and providing adequate safety nets to workers in a sector which is proving to be fatal for so many, it is instead at the nexus of private interests and ever-diminishing workers rights.