In Rajasthan—particularly in six districts of Jodhpur, Bundi, Alwar, Bharatpur, Dhaulpur, Karauli and Bhilwara– workers in sandstone mines, quarries, grinders, tile makers and other craftsmen remain at risk of Silicosis. Silicosis occurs due to prolonged exposure to fine silica dust during excavation, grinding and other processes from sandstone, quartz and other building materials. When inhaled, the fine dust and silica gets collected in the lungs and over time leads to stiff lungs, breathing difficulties, and fatalities1. Symptoms of Silicosis— fever, chest pain, and shortness of breath– are often misdiagnosed as tuberculosis2. This wrongful diagnosis is also responsible for the low officially ‘certified’ number of persons eligible for compensation under the new Silicosis policy of Rajasthan3 .
Falling under the umbrella category of Pneumoconiosis or occupational lung diseases, silicosis is recognized as an occupational disease under the Factories Act 19484, and the Employees Compensation Act, 19235, thus requiring appropriate preventive policies and due compensation. The real challenges, however, lie in awareness, prevention and risk mitigation at the mines themselves. The emergence of mechanical tools that improved drilling, excavation, stone cutting significantly enhanced the risks to workers. Employers’ have also been unwilling to bring in safer techniques such as wet drilling, as it reduces worker output considerably, and therefore, reduces profits. The workers, in the meanwhile, have been the ones putting themselves in danger.
Estimates, Diagnosis and Certification
Estimates of numbers of persons with silicosis vary widely, with official figures at 11,000 persons in Rajasthan and 1,600 victims since 20116. However, civil society actors and organizations believe the figures have been grossly under-reported and that approximately 40 to 50 % workers in the sandstone and other quarries are vulnerable to silicosis7.
The reason for the variances lie in the burdensome process of diagnosis and certification. The process requires physicians trained in occupational health and in International Labour Organisation (ILO) classification, as well as a functional medical board, and finally, proof of employment (in mines and elsewhere). Authorities also carry out multiple rounds of confirmation to avoid forgery for the sake of compensation. This long-winded process takes up significant time and energy of workers and their families, while denying them any form of interim relief. As a result, only a small percentage of workers scrape through the certification process. The 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report8 confirmed the existence of 2,548 silicosis-prone mining units in Rajasthan, while 7,959 cases were detected between January 2015 and February 2017. However, it was only as recent as 2017 that the Directorate-General of Mine Safety launched a ground study to understand the extent of the problem.
Civil Society Mobilization
An early glimpse of the adverse impact of silicosis was witnessed by NGOs working separately in different districts. Organizations such as Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (Centre of People’s Science for Rural Development, Jodhpur) have held field camps and highlighted suspected cases of silico – tuberculosis. Prakash Tyagi, a physician and the Executive Director of Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti, first raised the issue of silicosis in 19949. Dang Vikas Sansthan has been active in Karauli, one of the districts with large numbers of mines and therefore villages involved in the work10. Similarly, Pathar Ghadai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh (PGMSS) has been active in Sirohi district where, in 2011, it organized field camps and sent evidence to national occupational health bodies.11
Mine Labour Protection Campaign
However, the issue gained traction in 2009 when the Mine Labour Protection Campaign (MLPC) registered a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The complaint was supported by medical reports of 22 workers12 who were awarded compensation of Rs. 3 lakhs13 by the NHRC. Following this case, and helped by the constantly increasing numbers of silicosis patients, in 2012, the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission14 initiated a flat compensation scheme. Under the scheme, workers certified with silicosis by government hospital boards were eligible to receive Rs. 1 lakh and families of deceased were to receive Rs. 3 lakh as compensation15.
The MLPC initially faced the issue when an asbestos mine worker closely associated with the organization died three months after he had participated in training on occupational health and safety in Ahmedabad. The inquiry in his death, though inconclusive, helped MLPC take notice of the issue of silicosis (asbestos mines were now decreed to be closed) and led to the above incident where the organization assisted 22 widows of silicosis patients in their compensation fight16. In this process, the organization sent memoranda to the state government, met with high-level government officials, and organised dharnas and hunger strikes with the 22 widows of mine workers17.
However, Rana Sengupta of MLPC argued that the NHRC-awarded compensation was less as compared to Rs. 5 lakhs awarded to the deceased in a Gujarat quartz mine. What also helped bring people together was the comparatively better compensation policy in the neighbouring state of Haryana, which offered Rs 5 lakh for Silicosis patients, along with a certificate, and Rs 3 lakh to the nearest of kin in case of death. It also provided monthly pension of Rs 5,000/- to the patient and Rs 4,500/- to the family after his/her death. MLPC mobilised and rallied people together to demand for parity in compensation.
Advocacy and Influencing
The process of creating awareness by MLPC has been organic, using multiple communication media such as awareness booklets, postcards and local radio advertisements. They complemented the outreach activities with deeper engagement and evidence collection processes including legal camps for workers and seeking – out patients in the K.N. Chest hospital of Jodhpur.
The complicated process of screening and certification had left many people frustrated and angry. The fact that significant numbers of mines are small scale and often illegal, means that often workers have no proof of their current or previous employment as a mine worker, making it difficult to establish that they caught the disease due to work18. This is one of the reasons behind the MLPC’s work around organizing workers and advocating for enrolment in muster roll and other documentary proof19.
Activists have attempted to raise the problem in a number of ways. In 2018, 1000 silicosis patients were brought together in Jaipur for a public hearing20 by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and Suchna Evam Rozgar Ka Adhikar Abhiyan (Campaign for Right to Information & Livelihood) with a list of their demands. Some of the demands were addressable at the state level, including disability pension, Below Poverty Line (BPL) and labour card, treatment facilities at district hospitals. Other demands required discussion and consensus building at national level, for instance, i).inclusion of silicosis in national and state list of disabilities, ii). change in District Mineral Foundation (DMF) Rules, and iii). monitoring of builders and mine owners21. The public hearing was also a visible sign of people coming together and stating their demands.
It was the visibility of the public hearing, with people from various districts and the widespread nature of this issue which brought the attention of the Congress party’s Rajasthan team. Subsequently, the issue of silicosis found space in the party’s manifesto during the 2018 Rajasthan Legislative Assembly election22. The Rajasthan policy on Pneumoconiosis23, introduced in 2019, thus came as a victory of sorts to activists and people themselves who have been fighting for years to get improvements in the compensation amount. The policy acceded to the demands for higher compensation and disability certificate, with provisions for a monthly disability pension of Rs. 1250/- and a focus on both prevention and rehabilitation24. Activists, however, are asking for further relief and other measures including skill training for one member of the household. Meanwhile, workers continue to struggle, often for too little and too late.