Silicosis, a death sentence for mine workers

Business Line | Taru Bahl | July 12, 2019

Rajasthan’s mining industry is far from the modernised operation one expects it to be
Taru BahlWhen one enters a fancy resort and glides through hallways that glisten with polished marble, sandstone and granite floors, does the mind ever wander towards the countless deaths that are unofficially recorded in the stone quarrying and mining villages from where the impeccably cut and polished stone slabs are sourced?

Rajasthan attracts over 45 million tourists every year, with many undertaking road journeys across the towns of Bundi, Tonk, Jhalawar, Karauli and Bijola. Wide, four-lane, metalled roads allow smooth travel but piles of stone slabs stacked along the routes, many from illegal mining, hide the killer mines and “widow villages” they shield in the vicinity.

‘Our fingerprints have faded’

Rajasthan prides itself on its rich reserves of minerals, with mining being second to agriculture. As many as 42 major minerals and 23 minor ones are extracted in over 35,000 mines (Department of Mines and Geology, Rajasthan, 2015) that employ roughly 2.5 million workers.

Given that mining activity generates sandstone, which is in great demand internationally, for tiles, slabs and cobbles, one would expect it to be a modernised, worker-friendly industry. However, the truth cannot be more distorted.

Bela Ram, one of 300 migrant families living in village Budhpura of Bundi district, says they moved here 20 years ago and immersed themselves in whatever work came their way in the stone quarrying mines. Their condition has remained the same if not worse.

“We work in the very same pathetic conditions as our ancestors did, carving and processing stone manually, with hammers and chisels. Our villages shift every year with movement of mining activity. We have no identity proof and cannot make a thumb impression on government documents since our fingerprints have faded. The only difference is, we now know that most of us will die by the time we are 40 because we are inhaling hazardous levels of silica, which corrodes lung tissue and reduces immunity to respiratory ailments like asthma, tuberculosis and silicosis, commonly known as pathar ki bimaari. Our forefathers were ignorant of this reality.”

Silicosis is among the list of occupational diseases recognised by the Factories Act and Employees Compensation Act, which mandates employers must pay compensation to workers who are afflicted. It is an incurable, deadly and largely unnoticed and under-reported condition that develops over time when silica dust found in rock, sand quartz and other building materials is ingested. Diagnosis is a challenge with mine workers having trouble even finding out if they have tuberculosis or silicosis. The nodules that collect to form a mass can take up to 20 years to be identified in chest x-rays and the victim notices symptoms only after many years of exposure to silica.

Denial of problem

To reduce transmission of tuberculosis, last year, the Ministry of Health, identified priority groups, such as miners, who are at greater risk because of work conditions and reduced access to medical services.

State-run medical colleges set up Pneumoconiosis Board Centres to diagnose silicosis but are these measures good enough? Can TB and silicosis in mines be prevented and are mine owners adopting measures such as wet drilling and giving workers protective masks to reduce vulnerability?

The truth is, mine owners are reluctant to use these simple and inexpensive measures, instead offering lame logic, saying that wet drills slow down production and increase costs or citing the case of open-cast quarries where sand disperses and does not collect, and that NGOs are raising an unnecessary alarm. According to local NGOs working in the area, there has been complete denial among officials and mine owners.

More transparency needed

Rajasthan has no accurate data on silicosis, thanks to poor health infrastructure to diagnose the disease and regulate unchecked mining and quarrying. On the basis of a coal mining report, silicosis was first made noticeable under the Factories Act and later the Workmen Compensation Act 1923, Rajasthan Silicosis Rules, 1955 was established.

In 2012, a Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission scheme announced a compensation of ₹1 lakh to workers certified with silicosis by government hospital boards and ₹3 lakh to families of those who died post diagnosis. It is with great difficulty and with the intervention of dedicated NGOs that those with confirmed silicosis are able to benefit from this compensation. The majority are unaware of the regulations and even for those who know, the procedure for filing compensation petition is complicated.

“Doctors deliberately treat patients for TB and avoid talking about silicosis because, if diagnosed, they have to testify in court, which is time-consuming and a nuisance” says Sajid Ali, Coordinator for local NGO Manjari, that works with the community and has, in the last year, got at least 100 families certificates from the Pneumoconiosis Board to claim compensation. Meanwhile, in the “villages of widows” entire male populations are being wiped out at an average age of 40. Their wives are often victims to the disease too, leaving behind orphaned children. In the absence of regulatory frameworks, an unhealthy and commercial ecosystem thrives.

From country liquor sold at every corner to trafficking, sexual abuse, domestic violence and unscrupulous money-lenders, the poor are further squeezed. There has to be stricter enforcement to ensure that standard operating procedures are enforced. Mine workers have a right to know their risks, protective equipment must be mandatory and companies should be liable to penalty in case of default.