Rajasthan has a high number of mine workers, with more than 1.65 million families working at stone quarries and mines for meagre wages. Majority of these workers are exposed to multiple occupational health hazard, however, silicosis, an irreversible lung disease, caused by inhaling silica dust, has acquired epidemic proportions. Additionally, There is no cure for this disease. For prevention, masks are a must for workers, and employers must provide equipment that use water while grinding stones to minimise the spread of silica dust.
What is Silicosis ?
Silicosis is a fatal respiratory illness caused by inhaling fine silica dust through prolonged exposure in sandstone mines and quarries. It is a permanent disease with no cure.
Silicosis is among the list of occupational diseases recognised by the Employees Compensation law which dates back to 1923. The disease has symptoms similar to TB and frequently gets misdiagnosed as TB.
How serious is this social problem ?
Silicosis has emerged at epidemic level in Rajasthan due to exponential growth in the mining sector, inadequate Governmental policies, and poor implementation of the laws of the land. A study in 1992-94 carried out by the DMRC, Jodhpur reported that 9.9% sandstone workers have silicosis.
A Jodhpur based NGO, Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti GRAVIS, and a Delhi based NGO, Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) found that around 10% mines workers were suffering from the silicosis.
The CAG report states that 7,959 silicosis cases were detected in the state between January 2015 and February 2017, and in the same period, 449 people died of the disease in five districts. The report adds that there were 2,548 silicosis-inducing mining units in Rajasthan in 2017, but the exact number of mines is unknown as there are a large number of illegal units operational across the state and substantial number of cases donot get reported.
Despite such risks, why people still continue to work ?
While the miners themselves are aware of the rampant casualties in the mining community, multiple factors have compounding effect that force people to continue to work in such scenario.
- Economic backwardness
- Small-marginal land holdings
- Lack of other options that can give 9 months of continuous employment.
What is Government doing ?
State Government is paying INR 200,000 to the person who is certified as silicosis case and INR 300,000 to the legal heir of the person who died with silicosis. However, this compensation is paid by State Government on orders of the State Human Rights Commission for infringement of their right to life. Mine owners have managed to get away without paying workers compensation.
Silicosis can be prevented if mine and quarry owners adopted wet drilling which reduced the amount of dust in the air. However, as the ruling regarding this is already in place, the problem has been in implementation. The mining department requires mine owners to provide protective gear to workers and adopt wet drilling, but has little resources or staff to implement this.
State Pollution Control Board needs to carry out periodic air quality checks near clusters of mines and quarries. Department of Mines and Geology (DMG) needs to constitute flying squads and conduct inspections against errant mine owners.
Supplement the State grant by inclusion of these workers in the Pradhan Mantri Khanij Kshetra Kalyan Yojana (Prime Minister’s Mining Area Development Programme) and using Rajasthan’s District Mineral Fund to compensate the victims of these operations and improve their lives.
Lastly, the process of getting the disbursement is complicated and cumbersome. The patient/family has to file an application to receive the compensation. The application goes through a number of levels of screening, starting from the Community Health Centre level, where a referral card is made for the patient, who then has to appear before the medical board for screening. After being approved, the application is passed on to the nodal officer and then the district collector, each of whom has to stamp it. This application is now considered ‘registered’ and eligible for funds. According to information on the official website of the scheme, as many as 35,517 applications were registered till March 2019. However, only 8,255 cases have been certified, of which only 1,959 have received the funds. In addition to this, 10,284 applications have been rejected and 5,864 cases are pending at various levels. The complicated process has given rise to middlemen who charge 10,000-15,000 for getting workers /families their entitlements.