In a village in Rajasthan, silicosis caused by sandstone mining has reached epidemic-like levels

Khemchand Yadav, mine worker and silicosis patient from the village of Dabi in Bundi, Rajasthan   | Photo Credit: Ashish V.

Even as the DGMS study on the extent of silicosis gets under way, more men in Rajasthan passively wait to die

Khemchand Yadav, 70, and Phoru Lal, 55, are neighbours in Dabi village in Rajasthan’s Bundi district. They have similar physical attributes — eyes like bottomless pits set in hollow cheeks and bones sticking out from frail bodies. They cough and draw deep breaths when they talk. They both suffer from silicosis, the fatal respiratory disease.

For most men in this region, and in the neighbouring districts of Kota and Bhilwara, silicosis killed their fathers and they know it will kill their sons. And despite the 7th Asian Mining Congress held last month in Kolkata, where the head of the Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS) admitted that silicosis was a “concern”, nothing looks likely to change soon.

The entire region is a major sandstone supplier to the international market. In fact, there is no other means of livelihood in Dabi and the villages nearby, where silicosis has reached epidemic-like levels.

DGMS is only now conducting a study to determine the extent of the problem. It has collected 9,000 samples from five or six States, including Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Gujarat.

An occupational lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust found in rock, sand, quartz and other building materials, silicosis is incurable and deadly, but since it affects underprivileged mine workers, it remains unnoticed and mostly under-reported.

The dust has settled

Yadav has four sons between the ages of 40 and 50. They all work in stone mines, as do his two oldest grandsons. All his sons suffer from lung diseases and two are suspected to have silicosis. Yadav carries his and his oldest son Madan Mohan’s chest X-ray and medical certificates around with him. On the X-rays, he points out where the dust has settled in the lungs. All his life he worked in mines, without the slightest suspicion that the dust could be killing him, till he couldn’t breathe any more and the doctor told him why.

In Dabi and across Rajasthan, wherever sandstone mining takes place, death is normalised to an extent that is peculiar. The men die young leaving behind widows who end up working in quarries or carving cobblestone by hand, and children who start working from the age of 12.

Yadav and Lal too started working in the mines when they were children.

As mining and construction activity has increased rapidly over the years, life expectancy is dropping sharply, says Pekham Basu, an independent researcher on mining and silicosis, who has worked in Bundi. “Earlier we would see men dying at the age of 60, now it must be closer to 40,” she says.

There are “villages of widows” in almost every district, villages where the entire male population has died. “It is so deep-rooted, that generation after generation, the same pattern is repeated,” says Rana Sengupta of Mine Labour Protection Campaign, an NGO that works with mine labourers in Rajasthan. “The dust here does not spare anybody, neither those who work in mines nor those who live around it,” he says. “Hamara khandan hi khan mein ghoom gaya (We have lost our family to the mines),” says Yadav, sitting on a charpoy at Lal’s house.

Yadav was diagnosed with silicosis last year. Since then he has been trying to get the ₹1 lakh compensation that the government of Rajasthan gives to “certified” patients.

“We don’t have money to afford a doctor. We are illiterate, but are expected to do all the paperwork to get the relief,” says Yadav’s wife Kinti Bai, who works in a quarry, carrying crushed stones on her head. The family is in debt after paying for the treatment of her husband and their sons, she says.

Cumbersome process

Rajasthan has the highest number of mine leases (close to 35,000 mines, according to a 2015 report by the Department of Mines and Geology, Rajasthan), and has been at the centre of the silicosis debate in the country. A large number of its nearly 2.5 million mine-workers are under threat, with sandstone miners at even greater risk because sandstone has some of the highest quantities of silica. There were 125 confirmed cases of silicosis in Bundi in 2015, and 113 in 2016, according to government data.

Even though silicosis can be prevented through wet drilling and protective gear, most mines in Rajasthan are small-scale and unorganised, the workers are recruited informally, without contracts, and health and safety rules are not enforced. The mine owners get away with the least amount of culpability and do nothing to improve the work conditions.

“We need a cultural shift where both the regulator and the miners put their minds to making mining safer,” said P.K. Sarkar, the Director-General of DGMS, at the Mining Congress, adding that policing day-to-day affairs would be tough as the mining industry gets bigger.

In Rajasthan, the families of those who die of silicosis are entitled to ₹3 lakh. “It might be one of the worst-affected States, yet it is the only one to have a mechanism for monetary relief,” says P.K. Sishodiya, consultant on occupational health to the Rajasthan government. But getting the diagnosis and then the compensation is a long and cumbersome process for workers. Since 2013, the State has provided monetary relief to 12,000 patients, though the actual numbers of those affected by silicosis are much higher, according to researchers and activists.

Lal has been suffering for eight years and was repeatedly misdiagnosed and treated for tuberculosis. The failure to detect silicosis is not uncommon either. His silicosis was confirmed only a few months ago, he says, almost with relief. Lal is aware that this means certain death, but he is desperate to receive compensation so that his family can pay off the debts incurred for his treatment.

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Breaking the inter-generational cycle of debt and death is not easy. In 2013, the State Human Rights Commission and the Rajasthan government decided to pull out one member from each family and provide them with skills training for jobs apart from mining, says M.K. Devarajan, former member of the commission. It has not been implemented till date. “There is no literacy and agriculture is not reliable. We have to provide alternatives to them away from the mines.”

Every family tells a similar story. Mangi Lal is in his 60s and a mine worker. He has all the symptoms of silicosis — fever, chest pain, shortness of breath. He has been examined and rejected several times by the Pneumoconiosis Board. But in his heart Mangi Lal knows he has silicosis. He fears only that he might die before the disease is confirmed. As Lal says matter-of-factly, “We know that if death doesn’t come for you now, it will come for you later.”