NEW DELHI: In Madhya Pradesh, tribal families from Alirajpur, Jhabua and Dhar are forced to migrate to the bordering state of Gujarat to work in quartz-crushing factories because there is no work in their own habitat and they are also compelled to depend on rain-fed single crop cultivation which makes survival almost impossible.

This renders them susceptible to contracting silicosis consequent to inhaling the dust from the blasting of quartz which the work environment is filled with and no protection is available to them. Silicosis is a fibrotic lung disorder caused by inhalation and pulmonary reaction to crystalline silica, with exposure occurring during mining, stone crushing and quarrying. It is a notifiable disease under the Factories Act and is included in the list of diseases for which compensation can be claimed in Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923 and the Employees’ State Insurance Act (ESI) Act, 1948.

The quartz crushing factories in Gujarat are notorious for their poor health and safety standards at work.

The biggest shock lies in that though a large number of workers working in these quartz-crushing factors have contracted silicosis directly from their work environment, there is no recorded evidence of their having worked in these factories at all!

They neither have an identity card issued under the Factories Act of an ESI card. They were deliberately not given any identification as this would become evidence when they wishes to appeal and realise their legal rights as workers. Therefore, not one of them, affected or not affected by silicosis, is eligible for compensation under any law. This extends to medical leave, medical expenses, retirement benefits, medical pension or even compensation to their families in the event of their deaths.

Committed workers of Nai Shuruwat, along with Silicosis Peedit Sangh, a victim organization, and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, have been working in 105 villages with silicosis affected families in tribal districts of Madhya Pradesh since 2006. “We work for the rights of families who got exposed to silica dust as a result of working in quartz crushing factories and contracted the incurable deadly disease silicosis.”

Among the three organizations in Madhya Pradesh, initially, the work involved finding out the presence of silicosis among migrant workers and the extent of spread of the disease in several areas through studies, medical records, health checkups and investigations.

As part of this work, Nai Shuruwat began and has been doing regular surveys on silicosis affected households of these districts since 2006. These studies have been published periodically as ‘Destined to Die in four parts, each covering a graded exploration and recording of different statistical and medical data on the people affected by silicosis and people who lost their lives and so on.

The enquiry report further confirmed the prevalence of silicosis among mine workers in other districts of Madhya Pradesh, namely in Panna, Vidisha, Shivpuri and Indore, and the Govt has not taken adequate steps to prevent, detect or rehabilitate these workers. Silicosis has been confirmed in Betul, Ratlam, Chhindwara, Sidhi and Seoni districts too.

There is widespread illegal mining in these districts and worker’s safety is grossly neglected. None of the stone mines in the unorganised sector in Madhya Pradesh is covered under the purview of Mines Act 1952 and therefore there is no legal provision to ensure the workers’ safety, health and welfare.

The current part four shows a steadily rising death toll over the last 10 years. As per collected data, a total of 589 people have already died across the three districts of Alirajpur, Jhabua and Dhar. This has affected hundreds of families who have lost one or more earning member, leaving them in a precarious economic situation.

All these years, there has been no attempt by successive governments in Gujarat to compensate the families of the deceased silicosis patients, despite a NHRC compensation recommendation issued in 2010. Not a single family of the deceased has received any compensation so far.

Of all the deaths that happened in these villages, (almost 66% in Jhabua, 53% in Alirajpur and 73% in Dhar) were between the ages of 19 and 35. Similarly, of the patients who are alive but may have lost complete or partial capacity to work, almost 65% in Jhabua, 54% in Alirajpur and 60% in Dhar are between 19 and 35 years of age. This creates severe economic impact on families who have lost earning members of peak productive age. The larger picture is that the State stands to lose a slice of its young work force.

What has the State Government done? Though it formulated a Silicosis Policy dated September 15,.2011, the Government of Madhya Pradesh has not implemented the policy nor has it provided rehabilitation to the silicosis-affected patients. The present survey reveals that the number of patients across the 105 surveyed villages of Alirajpur, Jhabua and Dhar, who have received any government benefits under employment, housing, regular pensions or agriculture related support is miniscule:

  • A minute 7% of the total affected families got work under MGNREGA in 2011, 7.6% in 2012, which dwindled down to 3.2% in 2013, 1.2% in 2014 and 0.7% in 2015

  • 21.2% of the affected families were granted housing under the Indira Awaas Yojana, and a tiny 6% got both installments to build a house

  • Few were issued the Deen Dayal Treatment card and only 4.7% had the ‘Silicosis Priority’ stamps on their cards, as recommended in the Silicosis Policy of the MP Government.

  • Only 19.7% families received some kind of standard pensions (widow/old age/disability etc.) for a period of time and now only 10% receives these pensions (the rate of discontinuation is more than 49%). Nobody received the Rs. 1500 monthly pension as mentioned by the MP Government in their reply to the Supreme Court, dated March 2015.

However, the Supreme Court passed a milestone judgment on May 4, 2016 directing the Gujarat Government to pay a compensation of Rs. 3 lakh each to the kin of 238 deceased and the Madhya Pradesh Government to rehabilitate 304 ailing patients within a month, as identified by National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The three organizations aim to release the latest data around silicosis deaths, the extent of spread of the disease and the ground reality of the poor response of the government to this tragic situation.

Silicosis Peedit Sangh, in their affidavits, provided status of silicosis in other states too, namely Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Director General of Mines Safety (DGMS) filed affidavits confirming that there are a total of 44,155 mines across 36 states where 2,35,447 workers are at risk of silicosis.

The Supreme Court-appointed Investigation Committee confirms that while families of 390 deceased workers are still waiting to be compensated, another 1359 ailing patients are struggling without any effective rehabilitation in Alirajpur, Dhar, Jhabua, Vidisha and Panna districts. The Court has given a week’s time to the Govt of Madhya Pradesh to respond.

Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan, arguing for the petitioner Silicosis Peedit Sangh, pointed out how Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) conducted hurried inspection of the erring quartz crushing factories of Gujarat, where workers had contracted silicosis. GPCB’s inspection reports show that they had visited 30 factories spread across multiple talukas in three districts in just twelve hours!

A closer look into GPCB’s visit reports exposes that the inspection officer seems to have travelled distances of 70 km in 15 minutes, and completed the inspection of a factory. The Court has directed the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to urgently look into this matter.

The silicosis-affected families have been waiting for more than 10 years for some action from the governments and this Supreme Court order comes as a relief. Despite a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) order in 2010 asking to compensate the kin of deceased workers, the Gujarat Government, so far, had turned a blind eye, revealing its brutal insensitivity to the lives of hundreds of migrant workers who contracted silicosis as a result of working in factories located in Godhra and Balasinor in Gujarat.