Shravan was just 11 years old when his father, who worked in a stone quarry near Jodhpur in Rajasthan, died of silicosis in 2007. Left to fend for themselves, Shravan’s mother, Raju Devi, turned to her oldest child for help. Shravan dropped out of school and began working – ironically, in a quarry. A decade later – when he turned 21 – Shravan found out he had the same disease that once consumed his father, Shravan, now 26, told IndiaSpend.
Silicosis, or Patthar ki bimari (disease of the stone) as it was once known among stone quarry workers, is the effect of long term exposure to silica dust on the lungs. An incurable occupational disease, affecting mostly mine and construction workers, silicosis is prevalent in nine Indian states and one Union Territory, Puducherry.
Shravan’s is not an isolated case; in his village Gandero ki Dhaani, there are several who started working as children in stone quarries and were later diagnosed with silicosis. Thirty-year-old Lala Ram started working in a stone quarry when he was 11, after his parents were diagnosed with silicosis. “I am the eldest in the family – we are three brothers and two sisters...I had to start working,” Lala said. His mother, who also worked in the quarry, has been sick for the last 15 years. His father passed away from the disease.
Between 2018 and January 19, 2023, in Jodhpur district alone, 11,462 cases were registered with the Rajasthan Silicosis Grant Disbursement portal, of which 7,475 cases were certified for compensation after being screened at a Community Health Centre. In all, Rajasthan had registered 48,448 silicosis cases of which 31,869 were certified.
Mining in Rajasthan
Rajasthan has the highest number of mining leases in the country – 189 leases for major minerals, 15,245 leases for minor minerals and 17,688 quarry licences, bringing the total to 33,122 licences. A majority of these are sandstone mines and quarries in the unorganised and small scale sector.
Gandero ki Dhaani is among the 20-25 villages in the sandstone mining belt. Villagers call it the ‘widows village’, as there are nearly 40-50 women widowed due to silicosis. Children are the silent victims, sometimes medically, sometimes because of the intergenerational burden of the disease that their parents suffer from.
One of the major demands by civil society has been for mines and quarries to stop dry drilling, which does not use water, and exposes workers to fine silica dust that makes them vulnerable to the disease. Wet drilling, also recommended by the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission in a special report, can reduce risks.
The Rajasthan Policy on Pneumoconiosis (including silicosis detection, prevention, control & rehabilitation), introduced in 2019, says that the state government will take measures to register all mines, industries with dust hazards and potential to cause pneumoconiosis and notify them as hazardous industries.
“The aim of the policy is to streamline the strategy to deal with pneumoconiosis. For the first time, we are looking at a strong preventive mechanism and better assistance to the victims and their families,” principal secretary of Rajasthan’s Social Justice and Empowerment Department, had reportedly said in 2019. The policy aims to detect silicosis, and provide rehabilitation to victims and their families through the pneumoconiosis fund, but more needs to be done, our reporting showed.
The bulk of the implementation of the policy is funded through the District Mineral Foundation Trusts which are formed with levies on mining operations for the welfare of the districts where mines are, the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Fund, the state budget and funds from Corporate Social Responsibility commitments of companies.
Rules largely ignored
Many mines are illegal and not part of official records. The Mine Labour Protection Camp Trust, a nonprofit, like the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission had said in 2014, said that there are at least 12,000 mines operating around Jodhpur alone, even as the entire state records 33,122 licences mines in all.
Mahesh Mathur, additional district magistrate, Jodhpur in the Department of Mines and Geology – the regulatory authority – said they conduct regular checks to identify illegal mines. Mathur said that the department has cancelled the lease of more than 100 mines in Jodhpur in the last two-three years for dry drilling. “Mine owners are now aware of the regulations in place about safety measures in the workplace, about safety equipment for workers. Wet drilling is now increasing (in quarries and mines).”
“The machine required for wet drilling is expensive. Now there are other machines, like dust extractors which have a filter bag that needs to be changed periodically. It is also a safer option,” said Rana Sengupta, managing trustee and chief executive officer of Mine Labour Protection Camp Trust. During their research in December, the Mine Labour Protection Camp Trust found that while 25 dust extractors were bought by mine owners in Jodhpur, either because notice was served to them or they were applying for a lease, “none has been used”.
When asked, mine and quarry owners from the area, along with saying that they use wet drilling, also allege that the “silicosis claims” among mine workers are “highly exaggerated”.
Ghanshyam Panwar, a mine owner, said: “People who have never even been to a mine are proving to suffer from silicosis. These numbers are false.” He said the real reason for ill health among workers is a lack of hygiene and addiction to country liquor. “Workers mostly suffer from tuberculosis and they miss their treatment cycle. Then, when they don’t feel better, they assume it’s silicosis.”
Mohanlal Kataria, who has a mine near Kal Beriya village, which employs 30 workers, said that there is now a growing crop of middlemen who “can get you a silicosis certificate from a doctor on payment of Rs 50,000”. “It’s for the government compensation.”
The Rajasthan state government gives a rehabilitation sum of Rs 3 lakh to a certified silicosis (or pneumoconiosis) patient and another Rs 2 lakh to their family in the event of their death. A disability pension of Rs 1,500 per month is given to the widow and the family is eligible to get benefits from the Palanhar scheme for minor children.
The suffering continues
Birju, a silicosis widow, has not received compensation because she was unable to access her husband’s death certificate. She works in the quarry to support her four children.
The National Human Rights Commission on December 30, instituted a bench to deal with all silicosis cases in the country, except in the National Capital Region, to address complaints of non-payment of compensation to silicosis victims.
For others, the compensation amount is not sufficient. “I spent most of the money in repaying the debt taken from the contractor when my husband first contracted the disease, in paying for the vehicle to take him to the hospital, in settling medical bills,” said Gulab Devi, a silicosis widow in Gandero ki Dhaani. Medical bills are higher because families want treatment at private facilities, which have better treatment than at government hospitals.
A lack of other livelihood options means despite knowing the risks, Gulab Devi’s 16-year-old son started working in a quarry. “Mukesh dropped out of school; he was in class 10. He is risking his life for his three younger sisters,” she said softly.
Mine owners, like Kataria, are aware of children being employed by contractors for unskilled work in the quarries –like clearing debris, pushing trolleys. “It doesn’t happen in my mine, but children do go to quarries for work and to earn some extra money,” he said.
Priyank Kanoongo, chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, admitted that there is low reportage on cases of child labour from the mining industry. “There are hardly any first information reports to the police done on this issue,” he told IndiaSpend, adding that “no one” is interested in the subject. “Foreign companies want their products to be child labour-free but no industry here wants to be audited. We tied up with the Quality Council of India to audit industries in an effort to make them child labour-free, but no industry wants to be audited unless forced to.”
Kanoongo added that one of the ways to discourage families from sending their children to work is by increasing workers’ pay. “We have to strengthen the families by increasing their pay. We have had a successful intervention in Jharkhand where we suggested the same to the mica industry,” he said.
A report from December 2005, titled, “Budhpura ‘Ground Zero’, Sandstone Quarrying in India” by P Madhavan and Sanjay Raj, said the main reasons for children working in mines was the low wages of parents, alcoholism and bonded labour – when loans taken by parents fall on children’s shoulders to be repaid. The researchers had found that of the 1,00,000 quarry workers in the Bundi district of Rajasthan – another major mining district–roughly 15,000-20,000 are children. Most of these were in Budhpura’s sandstone quarries.
Enrolling children in schools is not as effective in dissuading child labour in mines.
In Kaali Beri village in Jodhpur’s mining belt, “there are at least 70-80 silicosis patients” in a village of 400 households, estimates Sajjan Kanwar, an accredited social health activist (ASHA). “Children going to the quarry for work is common…They go to school and after coming back, go to the quarry.”
In Gandero ki Dhani, 11-year-old Govind, who lost his father to silicosis in 2019, is also enrolled in school but hardly attends classes and instead goes often to the stone quarry nearby to clear debris for Rs 200. His mother, a silicosis patient, works as an agricultural labourer, to support her family of four.
“It’s difficult to work with the disease,” Mamta said, “I saw my husband go through it but we have to work to feed ourselves.”
Flicker of hope
Shravan, who was 11 when he started working in the mines after his father’s death, is now married. Because he took up work, his two younger brothers did not drop out of school. “I did what I had to do,” Shravan said, without any regret for the decision he made.
Despite a majority of people saying that they do not possess any other skill to earn a living, those like Shravan and Birju, the silicosis widow, are determined to keep their families out of the quarry. “My two sons and two daughters go to school. I will not send them to the quarry,” Birju said, while getting ready for her job at the quarry. “I know the risks (of silicosis) but I cannot sit at home in fear. With this work, I earn a daily sum of Rs 300.”
Lala Ram, who himself started working in the quarry at 11, too wants a different life for his children. “Both my children go to school…I will not let harm come their way. They must live a different future.”
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.