On July 21, 2011, Michu Murmu died a painful death, gasping for breath. The worker in an illegal stone crushing facility in Mohammadbazar in Birbhum died of a disease called silicosis. And he is not alone. At least 12 have fallen victim to the disease in the last year. Men like Debu Rauth of Kendrapahari and Sukul Tudu of Habrapahari are virtually waiting on death row, with no known cure for the disease and doctors giving the afflicted one to two years at the most.
The disease is fast becoming one of the biggest killers in Birbhum, a district that employs nearly 20,000 workers, nearly 90 per cent of them being santhals, in a large number of illegal stone crushers and quarries. Says Employees State Insurance Corporation's medical officer Dr Kunal Datta, “This is a lung disease caused by inhaling respirable quartzite or crystalline silica dust of less than 5 microns which settles in the lungs leading to inflammation and scarring. The workers inhale the dust during stone-blasting and crushing. Silicosis is characterised by breathing problems, cough, fever, and cyanosis (bluish skin).”
So deadly is the disease that even a rehabilitated worker rarely escapes death. “Even a rehabilitated worker will not be able to live longer than 10 to 12 years. This I can say from my experience. The workers of a leading ceramic factory of Hooghly, who were rehabilitated, did not live beyond 5 to 10 years,” says Dr Datta, credited with having detected the largest number of cases in the state. But the coup de grace is that the symptoms are so similar to many other lung diseases like pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs), pneumonia or tuberculosis, it is often misdiagnosed, leading to further fatalities.
In the 1990s, 20 workers of Surendra Khanij in Chichurgeria, Jhargram fell prey to silicosis. The issue reached the Supreme Court through a workers' support group Nagarik Mancha as a part of MC Mehta’s case on Ganga pollution. The Green Bench, headed by Justice Kuldip Singh, ordered that Rs 100,000 be paid as compensation to the kin of the silicosis victims. Since then, more than 200 workers in the organised industries of the state have been identified as International Labour Organisation rated silicosis victims and are receiving their compensations from ESI. Several others are waiting for their payments.
However, none of this helps the workers of Birbhum. Most of them work for quarries on illegally occupied land and running without any valid papers. Most are identified by merely the names of the owners who use hired goons to quell any protest. The illegal mills have absolutely no provisions for dust control as prescribed by the government. Even former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya had to admit this in 2010 during his Birbhum visit.
An environmental and epidemiological survey on stone quarry workers by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) under the Ministry of Health revealed evidence of silicosis in 22.4 per cent of workers. NIOH noted: “Most of the cases of silicosis were found in the workers who had worked for over 10 years. The mean total dust concentrations in two quarries were 3.38 and 3.72 mg/m3 and respirable dust concentrations in two quarries were 0.80 and 0.85 mg/m3 respectively with about 70 per cent free silica.” The national standards are 1.08 mg/m3 of total dust and mg/m3 of respirable dust with 15 per cent of silica.
A few years back, the santhals of Birbhum formed their own socio-cultural organisation, the Birbhum Adivasi Gaota. Thanks to the activities of the Gaota, many of the mills have closed down, some have been “legalised”. But the problem is far away from mitigated. The Gaota has been aided by two other organisations – the Rising Occupational Safety and Health Network of India (ROSHNI) and Occupational Safety and Health Organisation of Jharkhand (OSHAJ).
When Murmu's case came to the fore, the National Human Rights Commission show-caused the state government and asked them to report on the actual scenario in the state. The West Bengal Health Department has started the West Bengal Silicosis Control Programme under a group led by Dr Santanu Haldar, additional Director of Health Services, Public Health and Communicable Diseases. Convened by Joint Director (Personnel) Mahua Banerjee, it comprises representatives of departments like labour, environment, health and family welfare, the state pollution control board (WBPCB), NIOH, ESI and others was set up to “explore and come up with recommendations that would allow the workers of stone crushing units to come under a comprehensive security net especially from the angle of their vulnerability to silicosis.”
Furthermore, the group “may also look into the feasibility of creating a corpus fund to enable the payment, ex gratia, to the silicosis affected workers on confirmation of the disease, as a part of the compensation package.” Presently, teams are surveying crushers at Pachami, Mohammadbazar, Suri and Rampurhat and listing workers having respiratory problems.
ROSHNI and OSHAJ are not optimistic though and feel this might be an effort to cover up cases of silicosis. “The team does not have any doctor but workers from the Accredited Social Health Activist project,” accepted a member of the team in Panchami. “We have visited about 26 crushers of Pachami and talked to nearly 350 workers, of whom about 50 have complained of such problems,” he is quick to add. Incidentally, Mahua Banerjee has represented the state Health Department in front of the NHRC and claimed that there were no cases of the disease in the state.
The NGOs are also none too happy about the proposal to set up a corpus fund. “It is the crusher or quarry owners' onus to pay compensation and the government is to enforce that without spending the tax-payers' money,” said Shamit Carr of OSHAJ, who has moved the Supreme Court, following which the apex court has asked the NHRC to do the needful.
Meanwhile, the NHRC is struggling with the disease across the nation. A conservative estimate says that more than 25 lakh workers at mines and stone-crushing units of Jharkhand are suffering from silicosis. The Madhya Pradesh government too has the NHRC informed of making arrangements for medical treatment and rehabilitation of 304 persons suffering from silicosis. However it is yet to come up with a draft policy as promised, said PC Sharma, member of NHRC.
More than 1,700 patients have been diagnosed with silicosis in three districts of the Indore division in which 503 have already succumbed while the remaining have been waiting for rehabilitation for the past 29 years. Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Maharashtra are also under the scanner.
The NHRC is also in the process of designing rehabilitation and compensation policies for the victims. However, before illegal stone quarrying is curbed and the licensed plants forced to adapt proper dust control measures, workers of this country will not be able to breathe free, quite literally.