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Digging Their Own Grave, One Breath at a Time

Digging Their Own Grave, One Breath at a Time

Khadgodhara (Gujarat): Shirla bhai lay on the cot gazing at the freshly bloomed white and pink cotton flowers. The wind blowing on a hot September afternoon, under the tree whose shade guarded his rest, completed this picture of serenity. It was then that Dukkani Ben walked in. “Enjoying a nap, haan? You never let me do that in all these years.”

Shirla, now in his late 30s, was notorious for disturbing the rest of all the village elders when they moved to Khadgodhara village in Kheda district of Gujarat from Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh, twenty years back. Their original village, Kakerna, was one of the first to be submerged when the dam came up on the Narmada river.

“Around 50-60 villages were displaced. Land, house, everything was gone. Our relatives are now scattered all over the place. Only his mother and me – we were sisters – managed to come together to this village. We were both married in the same village. That is why,” Dukkani, in her late 50s, tells me.

Around 100 families from Kakerna and neighbouring villages from the Bhilala tribe were resettled in this ‘Narmada Vasahat’ in Khadgodhara in the early ‘90s. Shirla was 18 or 19 then. Bhilalas, who considered themselves nobility amongst the Bhil tribe by virtue of Rajput warriors taking their daughters as wives in the early 15th and 16th century to honour the tribe, have dabbled between occupations ranging from farming, craftsmanship and labour. They are classified as Schedule Tribes today.

“We were outsiders. The Patidars in the village did not let us use the drinking water from their well because we are adivasis. His mother and me earlier used to make adivasi handcrafted dolls but since we did not know Gujarati, getting raw material to make them was difficult. There were no immediate means to make money,” recalls Dukkani.

Shirla’s mother died within a year of moving here. Like many resettlement areas for the people displaced by dams on the Narmada, Khadgodhara too lacked clean drinking water, dispensaries, adequate food grains or the means to cultivate the land. The Narmada Bachao Andolan complained to the Gujarat government and it took five long years to get adequate amenities to restart life all over again.

Shirla gets up and squats on the corner of the cot. A young boy, in an unbuttoned shirt and trousers held up by a drawstring walks in. He is Shirla’s 12 year old school dropout son, Tikam.

Shirla yells, “Where were you all day?” Tikam ignores the question and comes and sits next to Dukkani, who caresses his head. Over the years, Shirla, once a youthful, vibrant man, has been changed by the pained and frustrated air of his surroundings. “Ignore him,” Dukkani tells me.

Once the families moved to this village, they were given some land for cultivation and concrete houses with a single roof and tin roof for resettlement. The walls of Shirla’s house, behind the tree, have long cracks that look like mood lines denoting the last twenty years of their existence.The rusted, brittle tin roof adds colour to the grey walls.

Saudi Lal, Dukanni’s husband walks in to join the conversation. An uneasy expression took over Shirla’s face.

Looking at the pink cotton flowers, Saudi starts speaking. “We planted maize in Jhabua. When we got kaali mitti farms here, we did not know what to plant. Then we saw the Patidars planting cotton. We did the same but in two years the land became barren. No matter how hard we tried, nothing grew.”

Khadgodhara has black alluvial soil fit for cotton farming. However, cotton exhausts the fertility of the land quickly. That is why regular application of manure and fertilisers is necessary.

“There was no money to revive the land and there was no money to eat. That is when we started taking up work in the farms of the Patidars,” adds Saudi. At present, the Patidars, the landed community, pay Rs 100 per day for labour.

Despite 20 years of co-existence, polarisation on the basis of insiders and outsiders is still a fact of life. On entering the village, when I asked for directions to this Narmada Vasahat, a shopkeeper, Narendra Patel, told me, “Madam, how long will the media continue to write about them? Write about us too.”

I asked why.

He replied, “These people have more than us. They were given free land, houses and borewells by the government. They get government jobs also. But if they don’t work hard, what can anyone do?”

When I repeat this to the people assembled under the tree, Dukkani says, “We were given these things in exchange for all that was taken away from us 20 years back.”

The lure of the quarries

It was around the time when the resettled families were struggling with the nuances of cotton farming that the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) started setting up an estate in the neighbouring town of Balasinor. The GIDC has set up 257 estates across Gujarat offering plots to develop small-scale industries. Balasinor, which is 10 kms from Khadgodhara village has a similar estate in 26 hectares of land with 110 plots.

According to the Ministry of Mines report for 2014-15, Gujarat is one of the top five mineral producing states in India. It is the sole producer of agate, chalk and fluorite (concentrate) and the leading producer of Kaolin, Marl and silica sand in the country. Balasinor is one such area, rich in quartzite, limestone and granite. A number of quarries populate the area that supplies stones to the crushing industrial units in the small industries set up by the GIDC. These factories manufacture quartz powder of different mesh size supplied to the glass, ceramic and chemical industries in Gujarat that are in great demand.

These industries offered double the wages the Patidars were paying. At least one member of each of the 100 Narmada Vasahat families took up jobs in the crushing factories. There were two types of jobs – one was to put the stone in the crusher and the second was to load the extracted powder on tractors. Shirla and his wife Damodari also joined in. She did the former and he did the latter.

Currently, the first job gets Rs 250 a day and the second gets Rs 200. According to Gujarat’s labour department, the official minimum wage for unskilled and skilled labour is between Rs 284 and Rs 303 respectively. Saudi says, “I stopped working in the loading section after they stopped using gunny bags. The open powder flew into my nose often.”

The factory owners’ logic was that filling the powder in gunny bags employs more labour. The trucks and tractors are now loaded with powder directly, leading to more dust particles in the air, making it difficult for workers to breathe or work.

“There was no fixed job. The companies called us as and when they needed labour. Even then, we would get work for 20 days in a month in one or two factories combined. But even after a decade of work, we are not permanent,” says Rahul, Shirla’s nephew from the growing crowd around Shirla’s cot. Shirla looked at him in disapproval.

Rahul continued, “He worked for eight years and his wife for ten years.” “Do you have nothing to do,” Shirla yelled at Rahul, still not getting up from the cot.

“Let me say it. Something good will come out of it,” Rahul replies.

Shirla looked away reproachfully.

In the last few years of working in the factories, Shirla started complaining of breathlessness, an intense cough, high fever and weakness in 2010. “His face used to turn red from coughing. He could not stand for too long. After the doctor told him that he had tuberculosis, the factory owners refused to take him back for work,” Rahul said.

“Shut up or else I will throw a shoe at you,” Shirla shouted hoarsely.

“Why are you cursing the boy? Let him talk,” Dukkani reprimanded him.

Damodari continued to work in the factory for the next two years. In January 2013, while loading stones in the crusher, she fell into the pit of crushed stones. The machine continued to pour the crushed stone over her for a few minutes before other workers were able to rescue her. “She was completely buried and the powder had blocked her nostrils. She could not breathe,” said Rahul. She was taken to the government hospital where she was kept for 20 days. Once back home, there was no money for treatment or food. Shirla was too weak by then so started staying at home to take care of the cotton crops in his one bigha (1500 sq metres) of land.

Damodari was weak and feverish on most days but got back to work within a month and a half. Then one day in April 2013, she could not breathe well; that week she passed away.

“This has become the norm. For the last decade, every year, at least 4-5 people die because of weakness and breathlessness,” said Saudi. “Often during cremation, their bodies do not burn because of powder deposits in their body parts.”

Rajesh Solanki, a young man in his late 20s from the same village who occasionally volunteers with the Silicosis Peedit Sangh, explains, “Most of them die of silicosis. The dust particles in the crushing zones act as tiny blades on the lungs. Continued inhaling of these particles cuts and scars the lungs and breathing becomes difficult. But it is never diagnosed in the local dispensary. The doctor tells everyone that they have tuberculosis to protect the factory owners who pay them to do that.”

The hospital did not issue a death certificate to Damodari. “It is a common practice. There is no proof that Damodari died. The factory owners pay the poor kin of the dead to eliminate proof. They did that with Shirla also,” Rahul tells me on the side.

In November 2014, volunteers from the Silicosis Peedit Sangh took 50 workers from Khadgodhara suffering from ‘tuberculosis’ to conduct chest X-Rays in Ahmedabad. Forty of them were diagnosed with silicosis.

Silicosis is one of the world’s oldest occupational diseases and has remained, till date, incurable. It is preventable but not curable. It is estimated that any where from 3-10 million workers in India are vulnerable to silicosis. Silicosis is a notifiable disease under the Factory Act and is included in the list of diseases for which compensation can be claimed under the Workers Compensation (WC) Act and Employees State Insurance (ESI) Act.

Legally, the silicosis victims could have claimed compensation under the ESI Act – if they worked in factories covered by the Act – or under the WC Act if they worked in factories not covered under the ESI Act.

“Most factories in Godhra are covered by the ESI Act but factories in Balasinor are not. But, despite a large number of workers contracting silicosis, none of them were able to get any compensation under any law. The reason is that no worker had any evidence of having worked in the factory, like an ID card issued under the Factory Act or an ESI card. They had no evidence that could help them get their legal rights. The workers belong to unorganised groups and did not demand ESI documents or Identity cards from their employers nor did they raise any complaints with the designated officers,” says Jagdish Patel of the Peoples Training And Research Centre based in Vadodara, who helped diagnose silicosis amongst workers in Khadgodhara.

On visiting the compounds of the Quality and Swaraj crushing factories in Balasinor, workers were found near the crushing machines without masks. There were no posters warning about silicosis, despite a Supreme Court order. On questioning one such owner, Aijaz, he said, “The factory is fully mechanized and operates without human labour.” This is when I saw 4-5 workers loading and unloading the machine and tractors.

Till date, the labour and healths department in the country do not have data to assess the magnitude of workers affected by occupational hazards – not in Balasinor, elsewhere in Gujarat or across India.

A court order flouted

After several civil rights groups in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat filed a petition regarding silicosis in the Supreme Court, the Court passed an order on March 5, 2009 directing the National Human Rights Commission to go ahead with the issue of compensation in case of confirmed cases of deaths due to silicosis and rehabilitation in case of workers living with silicosis.

NHRC teams visited factories and recommended compensation to the Gujarat and MP governments. The process went on for several months. At the end of the process, on November 12, 2010, the NHRC ordered the MP and Gujarat governments to pay a total of Rs 7.1 crore to the affected workers. While the Gujarat government was directed to pay compensation of Rs 3 lakh each to the kin of the 238 migrant workers from MP who died due to silicosis while working in Gujarat factories, the MP government was directed to rehabilitate the 304 workers who had been identified as suffering from silicosis while working in Gujarat.

After the 2010 order, more than 1000 cases of silicosis have been identified including 503 deaths. In 2013, the NHRC went back to the Supreme Court because the Gujarat government had not yet paid the mandated compensation. Indeed, in the past five years, Gujarat has not paid compensation to a single victim of silicosis. The case is still going on and the next hearing is on October 13, 2015.

Around the same time as the next hearing, the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals, Government of India, along with the Government of Gujarat, iNDEXTb and Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) are organising the 4th edition of India Chem Gujarat, a mega industry event with focus on speciality and fine chemicals, agrochemicals, dyes and colorants and chemical technology in Gandhinagar from October 28 – 30, 2015. This event is aimed at fostering better business relations between buyers from the textile industry and sellers from the chemical industry. Chemical industries in Gujarat account for more than 35% of Indian chemical production. Silica is one of the primary components used in chemical manufacturing.

Amulya Nidhi, an activist with Shilpi Kendra, an organisation working with silicosis patients and a member of Jan Swasthya Abhiyaan says, “It is a classic case of workers versus employers. The Gujarat government is the only one to openly flout the Supreme Court and the NHRC order. Moreover, the factory inspectors and pollution control department have not bothered about checking the violation of labour norms. The dates in the court against the Gujarat government keep changing while silicosis patients in hospitals are dying. They are in such a state that they can’t even do dharna-morcha to demand their rights.”

Sanjay Prasad, Principal Secretary, Labour and Employment, Gujarat when asked about such cases said he had “no information about silicosis cases in Balasinor.”

Fifty percent of the workers from this Narmada Vasahat still work in the neighbouring factories. According to Rajesh, every second household has a patient with breathing problems.

The rains have been sparse this year and that is why the villagers can already foresee survival issues in the coming season. “There is no water to plant wheat in the winter,” says Rahul, “s there will be no money in the coming months.”

When I asked Shirla, if he is taking treatment. He bitterly replied, “What happened to me? I am fine.”

“Why did you stop working in the factory then?”

“Just like that,” he said.

Rajesh says that most workers do not speak of their health problems or the issues at the factory because then their family members will not be employed.

Dukkani steps in to explain Shirla’s confused, deep and tongue-tied aggression. “There is a saying amongst the Bhilalas, she says: ‘Judging the offender also means judging the offended.’”

Published by The Wire on Oct 8, 2015
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