After a wait of six years, Sadhana Das, 45, finally has some hope of getting compensated. Her son Sasthi Das had died in 2006 after working for three years in a quartz crusher unit in East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. He was only 25. The landless family had to sell household utensils after exhausting all its savings to pay for Sasthi’s treatment. Sasthi and 21 of his fellow workers succumbed to silicosis, an irreversible lung disease, caused due to inhaling silica dust. The company, K K Minerals, shut shop and opened another unit a kilometre away in Musabani block. There is no known medical treatment for silicosis—victims report extreme weakness, breathing trouble, constant cough and weight loss, following which they die.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), according to its press releases on 9 and 10 July, 2012, hauled up the state governments of Jharkhand and Delhi. NHRC’s show-cause notice to the Jharkhand chief secretary asks the state to explain “why the next of kin of the 22 workers who died of silicosis be not recommended monetary relief”. The commission has also sought a report on “action taken regarding medical treatment and rehabilitation of workers who are suffering from silicosis and are alive.”
The show-cause notice issued to the Delhi chief secretary notes: “prima-facie it is established that the Government of NCT of Delhi has failed to protect the 21 workers out of 44 from the occupational disease caused due to inhaling of silica in dust.” NHRC also wrote that subsequent to its notice to the Delhi government, it first denied that there was any case of silicosis among the mine workers of Lal Kuan. NHRC then constituted a medical team which confirmed silicosis. The issue was brought to the commission by PRASAR, a Delhi based non-profit.
Silicosis is prevalent among workers involved in extraction and cutting of quartzite, gneiss, granite and slate, foundries, glass manufacturing plants, brick making, manufacture of pottery, porcelain, refractory materials and siliceous abrasives, road building, demolition work where potential sites of silica exist and blasting work using explosives.
“The magnitude of the problem can be gauged by the fact that Jharkhand has a mining history of 200 years. Presently, the state has 15,000 dust generating mines and units and our estimate is that over 2.5 million workers are suffering from silicosis,” says Samit Kumar Carr, secretary general of the non-profit Occupational Safety and Health Association of Jharkhand (OSHAJ). Carr brought the plight of the families to the notice of NHRC and has painstakingly collected evidence—medical reports and X-ray plates—so that the families can receive compensation. “If compensation is awarded in one case, it will have ramifications for the entire country,” he says.
Jharkhand suspended doctor for diagnosing silicosis
The NHRC order notes a claim from the chief secretary of Jharkhand in May, 2011 that the state has no certifying surgeon who can diagnose silicosis. After the admission, NHRC handed him a letter from the deputy secretary of East Singhbhum, addressed to the principal secretary of Jharkhand (dated May 18, 2011). “It was mentioned in the letter that a team of doctors was constituted under the district mining officer in which six persons were found suffering from pneumoconiosis,” notes NHRC. Pneumoconiosis is a broader category of occupational lung disease, of which silicosis is one.
Down To Earth has a copy of a report submitted in March 2005 by a team of government doctors, signed by the in-charge of Musabani primary health centre, V Murli Krishna. The report mentions the following in its conclusion: “all the above patients examined by us, have had exposure to fine stone dust particles for prolonged periods, unprotected. They developed silicosis, some in early stage, and some in progressive massive fibrotic stage. The only treatment available for silicosis is prevention and avoidance to fine dust exposure.”
There were, in fact, eight people diagnosed by the medical team. All of them have died since. Sukhram Gop, who was diagnosed at “an early stage of silicosis”, died in December 2005, eight months after the report was submitted. “We never received a paisa for his treatment or any compensation after his death. They suspended Krishna for two years and later transferred him to Jamshedpur,” recalls Monika Gop, Sukhram’s widow who is now struggling to get her daughters married.
The denial by the Jharkhand government raises questions about whose interests the state is protecting. Silicosis is a “notifiable” disease under the Factories Act of 1948, implying each case has to be reported to the district authorities so that compensation and preventive measures can be taken. Further, it is a compensable disease under the Workman’s Compensation Act, 1923. For instance, Sasthi Das should have received nearly Rs 13 lakh in compensation.
About 30,000 silicosis deaths go unreported each year
“In India, millions who work in crusher units in Jharkhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and other states are affected by silicosis. An estimated 30,000 die every year,” says Carr. “But till date not a single family received compensation. The disease could be prevented by using engineering controls like dust extraction devices which most units do not use to save costs. Doctors write tuberculosis instead of silicosis to avoid the legal obligation of reporting it to higher authorities,” he adds. The rap from NHRC might change things for better.