The disease is leaving a trail of young widows across Bhilwara, who are now the main bread earners of their families, often with two or more children to fend for
Sitting on the edge of a stone slab, Bhagwani points to her place of work — a sandstone mine located adjacent to her village Jaleri in the Bijoliya tehsil of Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district.
She is breathless from the walk, but quips to add that it is nothing compared to what her husband went through. Working as a stone driller since adolescence at mining sites, her husband started showing symptoms of silicosis five years ago.
The actual diagnosis of the disease took two years. By that time, he was already on his deathbed and succumbed to the ailment in 2016. He was 28 years old when he died, about as old as she is now.
Bhagwani became the provider for her three daughters from that time, earning about Rs 200-250 per day, loading stones at a mine, a place where her husband, and many others like him get the patthar ki bimari (‘the stone disease’).
“You tell me what else can I do? Show me another option,” she asks.
Bhagwani is among many young women known in Bijoliya known as the ‘silicosis widows’. “There are others like me here, finding it hard to support their children. They are at work right now,” she says.
Women in the region usually work along with their husbands in the mines. While men usually prefer to do drilling work which fetches a wage of Rs 400-450 per day, women work as loaders or cut small stones used for road construction, earning Rs 200-250 a day.
Those like Bhagwani, who weren’t working earlier, are compelled to take up the work due to circumstances.
In village after village in Bijoliya, almost everyone you meet works at the mines. The perils are well- known — they have seen their own die of silicosis — and the irony isn’t missed.
But in a place where the economic ecosystem is centred on sandstone mining and allied industry, the options are few. As one of the young men quipped, “money lies there.”
Mining economy at the cost of health
Rajasthan is the leading producer of sandstone in the country, with about 98 per cent of India’s production coming from here. According to district records, Bijoliya tehsil has about 1,100 sandstone mine leases, almost half of the total mines in the district.
The stone is of high quality and is exported to the United Kindgom, the United States, Canada, and Germany besides many other countries.
Though Bijoliya is fundamentally rural, agriculture has shrunk and suffered due to extensive mining and lack of water. In all of Bhilwara, this tehsil has the least proportion (three per cent) of net sown area according to the district irrigation plan.
Bijoliya is a microcosm for the entire state of Rajasthan, where about 30 lakh people (five per cent of the state’s population) are employed in the mining and mineral processing industry, while another 20.5 lakh work in building and construction, according to government estimates.
Both these sectors function without proper safeguards for workers generating a health burden of respiratory ailments, the biggest among them being silicosis.
A lung disease that affects workers in the mining and construction sectors due to sustained and close exposure to fine dust, soil, silica, coal dust and asbestos, silicosis is a terminal illness.
In sandstone mines, it is usually the men involved in drilling who catch it first due to exposure to concentrated dust that gathers as a result of drilling. Those working around them are also at peril. They work with no masks, and with bare hands and feet.
In Bhilwara alone, there have been 235 deaths due to silicosis since 2016. Apart from this, 1,400 people have been certified with silicosis since then.
“Over the years, we have seen that men who work as drillers from their teenage years are often dead by 30-35. The wife is suddenly the main breadwinner, earning half her husband’s salary,” Asif Ansari, a mining engineer from Bhilwara, said.
Apart from the morbidity, silicosis is leaving a trail of young widows across the district who are now the main earning members of their families, often with two or more children to fend for.
The rehabilitation cost
Until 2016, the Rajasthan government was just providing a compensation of Rs 4 lakh to the silicosis patients, of which Rs 1 lakh was paid to him / her and Rs 3 lakh to the family after the patient’s death.
This was paid through the Rajasthan Environmental Health Administration Board (REHAB), constituted under the Rajasthan Environment and Health Cess Rules, 2008.
After the institution of District Mineral Foundation (DMF) 2015, REHAB was discontinued. The compensation was increased to Rs 5 lakh (Rs 2 lakh to the patient and Rs 3 lakh to the family after the patient’s death).
DMF is a non-profit trust set up in all mining districts to work for the interest and benefit of people and areas affected by mining. Bhilwara, a big mining district, has so far collected Rs 1,100 crore and estimates an accrual of Rs 200 crore annually.
Is rehabilitation cost enough?
In Salwatia village, Sita, another mine worker who lost her husband to silicosis, has a story similar to Bhagwani’s. Her husband succumbed to silicosis in 2017, a year short of turning 30, she says.
Sita received an initial payment of Rs 2 lakh from the government as rehabilitation cost, which was spent on medical costs.
After his death, Sita is now awaiting a payment of Rs 3 lakh. She wants to invest it in a pucca house so that her daughters can stay safe while she is at work.
She is currently relying on her erratic income from the mines, a widow pension of Rs 500 a month and Rs 500 each that she gets under the state’s Palanhar Yojna for her three daughters.
“It is just enough to buy us two meals daily. There are days when I am not well, and I can’t go to work. There is no wage that day. I want some other work. But this is all I know and this is what everyone here does,” she says.
“One time compensation helps, but it is usually used up soon enough to pay for pressing needs such as a house, education and food for the children. In most of these cases, the eldest child also joins the parent to make ends meet,” said Prahlad Bahal from Grameen evam Samajik Vikas Sansthan, which helps silicosis patients with diagnostic and healthcare access and rehabilitation.
Typically, the average age of a dead silicosis patient is about 35-40 years, Bahal said. Many of them are much younger.
Can pneumoconiosis policy offer livelihood support?
Under its new pneumoconiosis policy released last month, the Rajasthan government is looking to converge money from DMF, Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Fund, the state budget, and corporate social responsibility to create a pneumoconiosis fund.
One of the key components of the fund use will also be livelihood and skill training for the kin of silicosis victims so that they have a sustained income.
“The livelihood training will be given based on the choice and viability of the kind of job the next of kin would want to do. It has to be close to their heart, something they want to pursue,” said Akhil Arora, principal secretary at Rajasthan’s social justice and empowerment department.
Rajasthan Skill and Livelihoods Development Corporation has been roped in to work on scoping and design work training according to need and opportunity.
Overall, the policy looks at prevention through better enforcement of pollution and industry mandates for workers, build awareness and early detection. A large part of it will also address rehabilitation cost and addressing the livelihood concerns among the families these patients leave behind.
“A steady livelihood avenue is needed so that women are able to cope financially. Also, for those who want to work in the mines as it is an undeniable avenue, wet drilling, proper work gear and pollution control will have to be enforced,” said Rana Sengupta of Mine Labour Protection Campaign.
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