Pits of death

Published : Feb 24, 2006 00:00 IST

Workers in Rajasthan's marble quarries toil in conditions that often lead to injury, disease and death, but neither the mine owners nor the State government has done enough to mitigate their suffering.

MAKRANA, a small town in Rajasthan, is best known for the pristine white marble that went into the construction of that great monument of love, the Taj Mahal. However, it now attracts attention more for the deaths in the marble quarries.

On an average, five to seven people die, or are seriously injured, every month in the quarries. But few are compensated. While there is no comprehensive data available for all the mines, the Mine Labour Protection Campaign (MLPC), a network that has been organising mineworkers across Rajasthan, has registered 368 complaints of death and injury due to work-related accidents over the past two years. Of these, 87 relate to deaths.

Says campaign manager Rana Sengupta: "At least 52 mines collapsed last year. The main reason is that marble is mined along an incline that becomes wider towards the bottom. The lease-holders of the mines are required to keep `safety pillars' between the various pits so that the top does not collapse. Unfortunately, they don't comply."

What makes matters worse is that none of the workers wears a helmet, even though dynamite is used to blast through the rocks. They do not want to wear helmets because of the heat; but it is the responsibility of the employers to ensure that the workers take precautions, whether they wish to or not. Also, no warnings are issued at the time of blasting so that workers can be moved away from the site of the explosion.

According to Bansi Lal, secretary of the Rajasthan State Mine Workers Union, a federation of small unions across the State, luck alone has saved the lives of workers. "Major disasters are waiting to happen. Thankfully, most of the collapses so far occurred at night or in early mornings, before people came to work. One entire stretch of railway track was destroyed when a mine close to the railway line collapsed," he said.

Bansi Lal himself had worked in a few of the 795 or so mines in Makrana before he formed the union, which, along with the MLPC, filed a public interest petition about the violation of norms in the quarries. As a result of the intervention, 35 mining licences were cancelled. "Each maalik (mine owner) now has to put up a notice board detailing the name of the lease-holder, and the exact size and location of the mine. At least, workers now know who they work for. Safety-kits are also provided to workers. We also insisted on metal ladders, in place of ropes, to descend into the pits," Bansi Lal said.

According to the Mines Act of 1952, workers are entitled to the provision of drinking water and first aid at the site, free health check-ups, registers of employment, resting sheds, a weekly holiday and so on. But none of these norms is followed. Unfortunately, most workers are illiterate, debt-ridden and hard to mobilise. The union has only a little more than 2,000 members though there are at least 30,000 workers. In Makrana, the Marble Mazdoor Union was formed only recently.

IN contrast, the lease-holders are well-organised; the Makrana Marble Mines Society has 500-odd members. Its chairman, Deepak Bansal, said that there was no question of providing Provident Fund and maternity benefits because the laws did not apply to all workers. "Each mine does not have more than seven workers on an average. The others are employed to drill, dress, transport the product and so on. We do not count them as labourers. There is no exploitation. They are paid Rs.2,500-3,500 a month."

On the issue of worker safety, he is defensive. "We conduct health camps. We've also started mining training camps along with the State government's Department of Mines," he said.

Bansal believes that the concept of `safety pillars' is outdated and unfeasible. "The rules require 15-metre gaps between mines. The maximum area allowed per person is 200 square feet (18 sq metres). The rules also say that mines should be like an inverted bench, at 90{+0} angles. It isn't feasible. In fact, rock mechanics say that safety pillars are unsafe. Now, we're planning to construct concrete `hanging walls' down the sides of the mines. The Department of Mines has agreed."

Bansal warns against any attempt to close down the mines. Since mining is the second-largest employment generator in the State, this seems next to impossible. But the government needs to rethink its policies.

There is the question of environmental impact, for one. Sengupta says, "Earlier, we were talking about environmental damage and the impact on agricultural land. But now we focus on labour issues because we realise how many livelihoods are dependent on mining. However, we are also lobbying to get the village panchayats involved. In Jaisalmer and Barmer districts, there is already an order making it compulsory to get no-objection certificates from panchayats before leasing mines."

One alternative is the amalgamation of smaller mines; this would mean a single large pit, thus minimising the need for safety pillars, and accidents.

The MLPC has already helped form 14 cooperatives, which have led to higher incomes for workers and better control over their working conditions.

At any rate, Makrana's workers are better off than their brethren in other districts of Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat. According to Deepak Malik, Director of Health, Environment and Development Consortium, the plight of sandstone workers is the worst as most of them are affected by silicosis and tuberculosis. Silicosis is a lung disease caused by silica dust; it is incurable and has been certified as an occupational hazard through the Rajasthan Silicosis Rules, 1955. Says Malik: "Rule 9 of the Silicosis Rules (1955) requires employers to get workers medically examined before hiring them, followed by a check-up every five years, to check for the onset of silicosis. Rule 10 requires that a post-mortem be performed on a worker who dies of silicosis, so that the family of the deceased can claim compensation."

None of these rules is followed, and as a result, the incidence of silicosis is found to be as high as 40-50 per cent among sandstone workers. Paipa Ram, who has been afflicted by the disease for 15 years now, believed he had tuberculosis. He says, "I've been in hospital 10 times. My medical file is thicker than my legs. Now I am told it is silicosis. But there is no help. The maalik will suck the best years out of us, and then discard us." As in other cases, he has no proof of employment. Nor does he know his maalik.

Along with three of his colleagues, Bhaira, Malla and Shivlal - all of whom are dead now - he filed a case for compensation in 2002, through the Pathhar Khan Mazdoor Union, Jodhpur. Paipa Ram does not expect anything to come of it. When this correspondent asked him what he was going to do next, he broke into a rasping cough, "I'm going to die, what else?"

HEDCON had even managed to get silico-tuberculosis certifications for the four sandstone workers. Malik recalls, "We were threatened by mine-owners. They said they would close down the organisation. Workers were also threatened and paid a few thousand rupees to withdraw the case. One worker was made to sign a statement saying he had never been sick. In two cases, it turned out that the lease was benami. Those responsible denied having any leases. That is the other problem - we can fight, but whom do you fight against?"

He adds that the authorities' unwillingness to acknowledge the problem is the worst hurdle. Although a State-level Pneumoconiosis Board was constituted in 1976 to check the incidence and severity of silicosis cases, and to facilitate compensation claims of victims, the three-member board never functioned. No medical examinations were conducted and the issue of compensation was conveniently forgotten.

In 2002, the board was reconstituted after HEDCON filed a public interest petition in the High Court. According to Malik, the board in Jaipur refused to come to the workers' aid. "It sent a letter to the Health Secretary, saying that its duties were not clear and so it could not do anything."

One thing that everyone is agreed on is that the State's mining policy needs to be revised, ensuring safety and justice for the mineworkers.

The first step would be to insist on employment records. Most workers spend their lives working as casual labourers. According to Bansi Lal, employment registers are mostly incomplete, if maintained at all. "Some workers get wage-cards for attendance, but are not allowed to keep copies of it since this would be against the employers' interests; if the number of workers officially crosses 25, the employer would have to provide for gratuity, maternity leave, provident fund and so on."

Living conditions of the workers are also sub-standard. Since most of them are immigrant workers, they live in tiny shacks, without their families; 15-20 men share a single room. Women rarely have the shelter of a roof. Bhurla Devi, who migrated from Jodhpur, where she was a landless peasant, says: "I have been working here for the past 25 years but don't even have a dera (home). Our children sleep in the dust."

Lease-holders like Bansal blame the government for this, saying that they need land allotments if they are to build houses for the workers.

Women also fare worse in the matter of wages; they are paid only Rs.50 a day, which is below the minimum wages in the State. They are told that they do not work `as hard as the men'. Women form 37 per cent of the mineworkers and children 15 per cent.

The State Labour Department has to be made more responsible if the workers are to receive justice. As of now, it does not resolve disputes involving amounts greater than Rs.1,800. For claims above Rs.1,800, the labourer has to go to court.

The State's apathy to the health and safety of workers in a sector that brings crores of rupees as revenue is worrying. All attention is directed towards raising production, while the welfare of workers is ignored. In fact, a telling statement of the State government's lack of concern in this matter is its Mineral Policy 2005, where the welfare of workers is mentioned in one short paragraph at the end. The document mentions health camps for workers, but serious issues such as accident compensation and occupational disease are not mentioned even in passing.

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