Closure of stone crushers leaves labour high and dry

By Pratik Kanjilal
Published: Tuesday 30 June 1992

Ground to a halt: the SupremeON MAY 15 this year, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgement in response to a public interest suit demanding the closure of the 300-odd stone-crushing units in and around New Delhi. Unlicensed units were immediately closed and the rest are to be shut down by August 15. All units are to be relocated in a zone which will be created by the Haryana government at Pali village within six months.

According to M C Mehta, who filed the case seven years ago, "No crusher will be allowed within 2 km of the urbanisable limit of Delhi." The court held that while environmental problems were implicit in development, they could not be permitted to grow into health hazards. It also hauled up civic and pollution control authorities for failing to deal with the problem.

But the judgement has ignored the problems of labour. "We had applied for the renewal of our licences in April," says the owner of a crusher in Lal Kuan, about 15 km from central Delhi. "When the judgement came through, all the units had to shut down immediately." Strangely enough, the contractors who operate the Haryana Minerals Ltd quarries, which supply the crushers, also shut shop, though they regularly stockpile broken stone.

Unfortunately, thousands of workers, who earn under Rs 50 a day, have been left unemployed, according to Mohan Lal Bagri, general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Khanan Vikas Sangathan. One estimate puts the number of unemployed at five to six lakhs, obviously an overestimate. Within 15 days of the ban, the daily wage-earners were at the end of their economic tether. "I've already given Rs 35,000 credit. I can't give any more," says Puran Mal Sharma, whose general store in Lal Kuan has lost three-quarters of its business.

The crisis has spilled over to ancillary services, affecting 90 per cent of the roughly 40,000 people who depend entirely on the stone trade. "We live off the hills," says Ishad Khan, 30, who works as a crusher mechanic. "On this rocky ground, you can't fall back on agriculture. We'll have to move out." In fact, according to Muhammad Shia, a truck driver, the diaspora has already begun. "In another 15 days, only a handful of us will be left."

However, according to Swami Agnivesh, whose Bonded Labour Liberation Front has been active in the Faridabad stone-crushing zone for 12 years, "The quarry contractors are in league with the crusher owners, and they've put out the word that quarry labour is being shifted. This is not true. Only people working and maintaining the machines are being moved out. That's under 2,000 workers. If you go by management figures, it's only 700."

Agnivesh adds that the quarries can be worked profitably even without the crushers. "By shutting down everything, the owners are only trying to extract concessions from the government."

"Look, the crushers were originally to be shifted in 1964," says Mehta. "Since then -- just two years back, in fact -- they have only put the crushers in closed sheds and installed water sprinklers to prevent pollution, which is nonetheless continuing."

"That's only natural," says one quarry worker. "They use the sprinklers only when the pollution control officials come to check. The rest of the time, we have to live with the dust. But then, at least we get to live. And eat."

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