“What is the alternative?” said Kamala Bhil, whose husband died of silicosis and one of her sons is suffering after being diagnosed with the lung disease. “Where is it? Four of my sons work in the stone mines even as they know they will contract silicosis. But what is the alternative to earn a livelihood? None.”
The 55-year-old is from an Adivasi community and lives in Bhil Basti in Jodhpur region of Rajasthan. She is among thousands of women who have lost their husbands or sons to silicosis contracted while working in stone mines. However, the widows themselves or other surviving family members are forced to now work in these mines for anything between Rs 200 to Rs 400 per day as there are no other livelihood opportunities for them.
With mining, the promise of development or a transition to a better life has never been realised for these women. The only transition they have witnessed in their lives is the successive deaths of their husbands, sons, brothers and other family members, from mining-associated diseases.
“One of my sons contracted silicosis several years ago and since then he has been at home living on medicines,” Kamala Bhil told Mongabay-India. “We got a part of the compensation from the government but it is not enough to take care of him.”
The story of 60-year-old Shanti Devi of Sodho ki Dhani, a village in the same Jodhpur region is no different. She lost her husband and one of the sons to silicosis while another died of cancer.
She herself had mouth cancer, which she has now recovered from, and relies on the widow pension from the government to survive. She got a part of the money that silicosis patients get while they are alive, but not the amount she was supposed to get after her son died.
Under the present policy in Rajasthan, people certified with silicosis get Rs 3,00,000 as one-time assistance while they are alive and their nominee/heir gets Rs 2,00,000 after their death.
“It has been several years since my son died,” Shanti Devi told Mongabay-India. “There is just no option. I live alone and have nothing with me. Last year, during the coronavirus lockdown, I mortgaged my jewellery to survive and I know I can never get it back. I am counting my days as there is no money for my medicines as well.”
Caused by inhalation of silica, silicosis is a fibrotic lung disorder and it leads to prolonged illness and painful death. In Rajasthan, workers who go to hundreds of legal and illegal stone quarries and crushers are the biggest victims of this illness.
Over the last few decades, several thousand have died and several thousand are inching towards death due to silicosis but there is no respite for their families except paltry compensation that often remains stuck in bureaucratic paperwork.
Many approach bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission but the wheels of justice are slow to move. For instance, Shanti Devi approached the National Human Rights Commission for compensation in the case of her sons but the papers are stuck in the verification process at different levels in the government system. Her son was certified to have died of silicosis in 2017 but the compensation has not come so far.
Systemic inefficiency adds to the woes
In Rajasthan, no one has the exact number of silicosis patients as yet, because of lack of diagnosis, wrong diagnosis and certification process. But according to a 2018 Comptroller and Auditor General of India report, about 8,000 silicosis patients were detected in the state over two year period, between January 2015 and February 2017. Over the same two years, 449 people died of silicosis in just five districts of Rajasthan.
On the other hand, according to the official numbers of Rajasthan government, there are about 17,000 certified silicosis patients in the state right now and organisations working with the patients estimate that there could be another 10,000 more who have not been certified, as some times certification claims are rejected as well.
“There are many such women who face an uncertain future due to this (system inefficiencies),” Shikha Kachhawaha, who works with the Mine Labour Protection Campaign, a social group, told Mongabay-India. “They sat on protests several times to demand relief but nothing much changed. In the Jodhpur region alone, we estimated 1,100 such cases.”
“It is a systemic issue,” said Kachhawaha, who works with the families of mine-affected people. “In one case, a young man who was certified to have silicosis just a few months ago has already got the part of the compensation while the family of someone who died years ago is yet to get it.”
“There is this case of one Jagdish Gehlot who died on January 13,” Kachhawaha said. “Earlier, in November, his case was sanctioned for compensation but he didn’t get the money and now after his death, the officials are saying his family will be eligible only for the post-death part of the relief (and not the part due to them while he was alive). Now, what is the fault of his or his family member.”
She informed that Rs 2,00,000 were transferred to the account of Gehlot’s family but it is not clear whether the money is for the period when he was alive or the amount he was supposed to get after his death.
A vicious cycle for stone miners of Rajasthan
Rajasthan is India’s largest state and, according to the state government, it has extensive mineral deposits of marble, granite, sandstone, limestone, quartz, feldspar, silica sand, siliceous earth, clays, soapstone in various districts, which can yield multiple minerals including copper, zinc, iron ore, lignite and manganese. The mining sector contributes about 4.4% to the state’s gross domestic product.
The Rajasthan Mineral Policy 2015 speaks about “propagation of sustainable mineral extraction regime aiming zero waste by adopting systematic and scientific mining with due safety, productivity, conservation, cost-effectiveness and adhering to the threshold parameters of the environment, social commitments, and health and welfare of people employed therein”.
The policy also mentions that to control pneumoconiosis and silicosis in sandstone bearing areas, wet drilling will be promoted and more emphasis will be given on regular health checks of mining labourers.
But those who have been working with mining-affected communities argue that many such plans remain on paper and that there is no record of the affected people employed in illegal mines. They argue that what is missing is a policy and approach, which rather than only focusing on mining, looks at people and the transition that their lives undergo when they suffer from mining-related diseases or when they die due to such diseases.
Pekham Basu, who works as an assistant professor with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, has been researching and working with communities affected by mining in Rajasthan, for years.
“Mining and occupational safety hazards that come with it are unavoidable evils for people in most of the mineral-rich areas,” Basu told Mongabay-India. “Whether they die in mine pits, contract life-threatening diseases like silicosis or anything else, the absence of a holistic alternative and options for alternate livelihoods pushes them into this vicious cycle of taking loans to run the family and then their generations working in stone mines akin to indentured labour to pay that back. That they die after contracting diseases like silicosis is just an added problem in their lives.”
“It is an unimaginable life for many,” she said. “When men die, their widows are forced to work in the mines just to survive. They go to work only after everyone else has left for work due to social taboo – others do not wish to see a widow while going to work as it could bring them bad luck.”
“Finally, when they reach the mine, their half-day wage is deducted for coming late,” she said. “These women lose their father, brothers, husbands, sons after working in these mines and when they die, these women have to go [there] to survive. There have been so many cases where women who delivered a baby and within a week were back to work in the mines along with their infants.”
Basu recounted cases of a nomadic tribal community who shifted districts for work and when their men died there was no monetary relief as they had no papers. “It was only after years of struggle that they could get government-issued identity cards,” she said.
She emphasised that there are many schemes and programmes that can be used for the welfare of these people such as the district mineral funds but they are rarely used for rehabilitation or alternate livelihood of the mining-affected people.
Is there a solution?
Beyond the issue of resorting to working in the mines to pay their debts, one of the reasons the mining-affected communities repeatedly point out is the lack of an alternative.
Rana Sengupta, who is the managing trustee and the chief executive officer of Mine Labour Protection Campaign, said a lot of the people affected by stone mining are unskilled labourers.
“Dring Covid-19, when many mines were shut, we spoke to the widows, who were working in mines, to understand what they could do beyond mining,” Sengupta told Mongabay-India. “They said they can make bangles or food items like papad and can manage goats. Thus, over the last few months, we identified this group of 19 widows who joined us to manage a goat farm. We are now forming a cooperative which will be run by them.”
He explained that they are working out a system wherein Mine Labour Protection Campaign breeds the goats with a better breeder and then gives the goats and their infants to the widows to earn a livelihood from selling the milk.
“And when they want to sell the goat for money, they can sell it back to this cooperative itself,” he said. “We hope this becomes successful so that these women can get an alternative, otherwise they may remain stuck in the vicious cycle of a loan and mortgaging their jewellery or house.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.