Darkness, dust, disease plague Rajasthan’s mineworkers

By Anil Sharma, Indo-Asian News Service

Jaipur: No toilets, no first aid boxes, no weekly offs, no safety provisions and, to top it all, the dangerous mineral dust-laden air…The inhuman conditions under which over two million mineworkers in Rajasthan toil away every day is heartrending.

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A Jaipur-based NGO – Health, Environment and Development Consortium (Hedcon) – which has taken up the cause of these mineworkers, even dragging the state government to court over it – has highlighted their plight in a report.

“There are no first aid boxes, ladders or safety provisions. Men and women, dragging tattered sandals, drill out sandstone slabs, split them into slates, haul them around on their shoulder, or clear out rubble from the passage, all with bare hands as clouds of dust sweep past their naked faces,” the NGO says.

The mining labour force in the desert state of Rajasthan number two million, of which, according to an estimate, 37 percent is female, and 15 percent is under the age of 18, it says.

An adult male worker receives merely Rs.50-100 per day depending on his skill, after 8-10 hours of gruelling work. The daily wage for a woman, who can find unskilled work if she is lucky, is Rs.30-35, and a child Rs.20-30.

They have no holidays or weekly offs, not to mention medical or maternity leave. The physically tedious work drives people to consume alcohol and tobacco, which devour a significant portion of their meagre income.

The whole community is plagued by malnutrition, ill health and physical impediments from accidents. A mineworker, on an average, finishes his life at the age of 49.3 years – 10 years earlier than those outside the mines, leaving his wife and children with no choice other than stepping into the mine.

Moreover, the dust swirling around in quarries is mineral powder that causes a number of lung diseases, such as silicosis, tuberculosis (TB), silico-tuberculosis and asthma.

Hedcon notes that the most notorious is silicosis, a fatal disease caused by the accumulation of minute silica particles in the lungs. People usually do not realise their medical condition for years, and it takes up to 20 years for any sign to appear on a chest X-ray. As a result, silicosis is often not detected until it is too late for any treatment. Above all, silicosis is irreversible and incurable – it keeps progressing even in the absence of dust.

Jodhpur, Makrana, Udaipur, Karauli are among the prominent places in the state where mining is carried out for sandstone, marble and slate.

A research in 1996 reported that the concentration of silica dust in the air is at least 8,893 microns/m³ in the sandstone quarries in Jodhpur, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) sets the safe upper limit at 40 microns/m³. Thus, mineworkers there breathe air loaded with 222 times more silica than the safe limit.

In 2005, 151 mineworkers were randomly selected from among those working in a Jodhpur mine for at least five years, and underwent a medical check-up. A medical practitioner certified 77 of them – 50.1 percent – to be suffering from silicosis.

It has been repeatedly requested that mine owners provide every worker with a proper protective mask, which costs only Rs.35-40 each. But to date, no such provision has been reported, the NGO says.

Looking at the condition, in December 2006, Hedcon filed a PIL in the high court against the labour, medical & health, and mines departments in the government of Rajasthan, as well as the Mines Safety office.

The petition urged that mine owners be directed to remedy the inhuman, silicosis-prone environment, and introduce regular medical examination; the immediate functionality of the Pneumoconiosis Board be ensured; the procedure for compensation be reformed; funds be collected from mine owners to compensate silicosis patients, and; assistance to the family of the deceased and the education of children be ensured.

In March 2007, the court accepted the petition and issued notices to the state government, asking them to give an account of this matter and to take proper action.

The government is yet to respond.