Quarry workers are often victims of silicosis, but companies and governments have lived in denial of it. however, laws have come to the rescue of some of these workers
By Dinesh C Sharma
Shiny five-star hotels, glitzy malls, shopping arcades and even temples like Akshardham are seen as symbols of modern India and development. What unites them is the extensive use of construction material like black granite, marble and red sandstone, which are favorite materials of builders. The construction boom and the increasing dem-and for different kinds of stones is benefiting the stone mining industry in different states. But there is also a negative side to this industry, with serious health consequences.
“Most mining activities produce silica dust, which is inhaled by workers if they are not wearing protective masks. This acts like slow poison, leading to respiratory diseases.
While appreciating a red sandstone structure or walking on a granite floor, most of us don’t appreciate the toil of workers who brought it from deep mines. Every stage in the process—mining, drilling, blasting, digging, hammering, cutting, polishing and grinding—exposes miners and workers to several hazards. Most of these activities produce silica dust (chemically called silicone dioxide), which is inhaled by workers if they are not wearing protective masks. These fine particles of dust are lifted into the air near mines and even those not employed there—most often children of workers living nearby—are also exposed to it. This acts like slow poison for workers directly exposed to it, as long-term exposure can make workers prone to several respiratory diseases—pulmonary tuberculosis, chronic airflow limitation and lung cancer—and kidney problems. The worst among them is silicosis, which leads to slow degradation of lung tissues and ultimately, death.
For long, Indian companies and government departments have lived in denial about silicosis. Workers know that they have some problem in breathing and many die prematurely, but they continue to work in mines as they have no other vocation to pursue. Lack of awareness among local doctors often leads to misdiagnosis because its symptoms are very similar to that of tuberculosis. In the past, small-scale surveys of workers did point to the presence of this disease, but there was no follow-up. Only in recent years has acti-vism by the civil society and human rights agencies led to the recognition of silicosis as an occupational disease among miners.
In Rajasthan, where red sandstone and marble mining is widespread, workers identified as silicosis patients are being given financial compensation by the government. This has become possible due to implementation of a long-forgotten mining legislation —the Mines Act 1952 and the Workmen Compensation Act 1923 and rules notified under these two laws from time to time. Under these laws, silicosis is a notifiable disease and a detailed process for compensation, including establishment of pneumoconiosis boards (medical boards) to certify patients, has been laid out. But all these decades, none of these provisions were used.
A group of silicosis patients in Rajasthan
“The first Pneumoconiosis Medical Board was set up in the state in 1965—it did not become functional until the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission intervened in 2013. At our instance, seven such boards have now been set up in all government medical colleges and the state government plans to have these boards in all districts,” reveals Dr MK Devarajan, a member of the Rajasthan Human Rights Commission.
A SMALL BEGINNING
These boards help in the screening of workers, diagnosis of disease and certification of silicosis patients, which enables them to get a compensation of `1 lakh from the government. Grassroots organizations like Jodh-pur-based Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (Gravis) are engaged in workers’ education and motivating them to undergo tests, inclu-ding chest X-ray at the nearest medical college. “The problem is that these boards function only on certain days of the month and workers find it difficult to go during those days and also for follow-up. Still, we have been able to convince many of them to get tested for silicosis. The procedure for getting compensation is so tardy that many workers succumb to the disease by that time. Still, we have been able to help many workers get compensation,” says Vinod Kumar Tyagi, an official of Gravis. Legal help cells have also been established in villages in the mining belt around Jodhpur.
For long, government departments have lived in denial about silicosis. Lack of awareness among local doctors leads to wrong diagnosis because its symptoms are similar to that of tuberculosis.
The first step is identification of workers with silicosis so that they get compensation. “Compensation money only helps to some ex-tent, because workers certified as silicosis patients have no work as there are no rehabilitation schemes. There is no medical help available for them; they simply die,” says Somaram Jaypal, secretary of Khan Mazdoor Mahasangh, a trade union.
Mining companies need to take up preventive measures like promoting the use of protective masks, wet drilling and offering regular medical check-ups. “The biggest hurdle is the attitude of mine owners who are just not bothered about safety requirements. They make workers pour abundant water while using gang saw machines (to cut stone) as diamond cutters will get spoiled otherwise, but they do not attach similar value to the lives of their workers,” adds Devarajan.
LAW TO THEIR RESCUE
The following laws pertaining to mine workers are meant to provide them the necessary safeguards:
- Section 25 of Mines ACT, 1952
This section says that mine management is required to submit notice of occurrence of notified diseases. It also states that:
1. Whenever any person employed in a mine contracts any disease which is notified by the central government as a disease connected with mining operations, the owner, agent or manager of the mine shall send notice thereof to the chief inspector.
2. If any medical practitioner attends on a person who is or has been employed in a mine and who is or is believed by the medical practitioner to be suffering from any disease notified under sub-section (1), the medical practitioner shall send a report in writing to the chief inspector.
The following diseases have been notified as diseases connected with mining operations: silicosis, pneumoconiosis, manganese poisoning (nervous type), asbestosis and cancer of lung, stomach, pleura and peritoneum.
- Rule 29 B, Mines Rules, 1955
It provides for:
(a) Initial medical examination of every person to be employed in the mine.
(b) Periodical medical examination, once every five years of persons employed in the mines.
(c) In case of persons engaged in the process of mining or milling of asbestos, periodical medical examination shall be done at least once in every 12 months and every such examination shall include all the tests except the X-ray examination, which shall be carried out once in every three years.
(d) The periodical medical examination or the X-ray examination or both, shall be conducted at more frequent intervals if the examining authority deems it necessary to confirm a suspected case of a dust related disease.
- Section 3 of Employer’s Liability for Compensation, Workmen Compensation ACT, 1923
If a workman contracts any disease specified as an occupational disease peculiar to that employment, or if a workman, whilst in the service of an employer in whose service he has been employed for a continuous period of not less than six months in any employment specified, contracts any disease specified therein as an occupational disease peculiar to that employment, the contracting of the disease shall be deemed to be an injury by accident within the meaning of this section.
The central government had also formulated Model Draft Rules—Workmen’s Com-pensation (Occupational Diseases) Rules, 1961. However these rules were ratified only by a few states.
These rules state that diagnosis of pneumoconiosis shall be carried out with all necessary technical guarantees. Proof of the degree of development of the pathological or anatomical changes in the respiratory and cardiac systems shall be furnished by the radiographic record and other laboratory records, which shall be accompanied by the report of a full clinical examination, including a report of the industrial history of the person concerned, the record of all occupations in which he has been employed, the nature of the harmful dusts to which he was exposed and the duration of such exposure.
For entitlement to compensation, silicosis and coal miners’ pneumoconiosis shall fulfill radiological and clinical conditions stated in these rules.
It’s obvious that the law is the last bastion of the needy.