Silicosis deaths in Pondicherry

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

Silicosis strikes glass factory workers, most of them women, in Pondicherry. Seven people are dead and more may be dying. But the government and the factory management tout technicalities in the face of the workers' suffering.

in Pondicherry

IN Ward No. 108 at the Pondicherry Government Hospital, 21-year-old C. Sumathi, in pain, unable to breathe, speak or even sit up by herself, waits for the inevitable end. Six of her close friends, also in the same ward, are as much in pain but not as close to death, as yet. They suffer from silicosis, a fatal occupational disease affecting the lungs, caused by exposure to silica. It has claimed the lives of seven others from Villianur and Arumparthapuram villages, near Pondicherry town, in the last eight months. Several others from the two villages are in various stages of the disease.

In these two villages, at least one person, usually a woman, from each household suffers from chest pain, coughing, breathlessness, loss of appetite and weight loss, as in the case of Sumathi and her friends in hospital. All of them had worked in the sand plant (where silica is sieved) and batch house (where the sieved materials are segregated) of a glass manufacturing unit in Thondamanatham, 15 km from Pondicherry.

The Pondicherry government and the present management of the company, meanwhile, wait for the results of an investigation to provide them proof that the illness is the result of exposure to silica, before extending relief or compensation to the affected workers, most of them women.

In 1992, when the Thapar group set up BILT Glass Containers in Pondicherry to make food grade bottles, for the Union Territory it looked like a good deal. It meant more jobs and revenue for the government. The plant, which used silicon sand, quartz, calcite and so on as raw materials, became operational by mid-1992. It provided direct and indirect employment to over 1,500 people, most of them on contract. Apart from the furnace, where specialists worked, the departments where contract workers were mainly employed were the sand plant and the batch house, besides in loading and unloading and in packing. Contractors brought workers from the neighbouring villages. While the men performed loading and unloading operations, the women mostly worked in the sand plant and the batch house. Apparently, hardly any safety measures were followed and workers were not provided protective gear to prevent silica from getting into their system. Not realising the danger to their lives and happy to get between Rs.14 and Rs.24 for 8 to 12 hours of work, several women worked even two shifts continuously.

For more than a year the plant worked to capacity, mainly exporting to the Gulf countries, until similar plants were set up in Dubai. Orders dwindled and prices became very competitive. In 1993-94, the Thapars sold 50 per cent of their stake to the U.S. company Owens, and the company was renamed Owens-BILT India Ltd. While it was trying to stabilise its position, yet another glass container plant came up in Dubai and the export option closed. Within India, with other manufacturers consolidating their position, Owens-BILT found the going tough. In 1996, the Thapars handed over the company to Owens, and it became Owens Brockway India Ltd. Contract wages rose from Rs.24 to Rs.33 a day.

Around 1999, several women contract workers took ill, suffering chest pain, breathlessness and weight loss. Absenteeism grew among the contract workers, mainly women, owing to illness. In 2000, the management decided to automate the sand plant and the batch house, which reported the maximum absenteeism. While the contracts of most of the sick persons were cancelled, some were transferred to other departments.

The industry meanwhile saw a slump, with plastic bottles and other packaging options becoming popular, and recycled glass units breaking into the market. In 2002, Owens sold out to Hindustan National Glassworks of the Somany group, which has been in the business for 45 years and has similar plants in Kolkata, Pune, Bahadughat (Haryana) and Rishikesh. Supplying to several multinational companies, Owens Brockway was renamed Ace Glass Containers Ltd. Under the new management the unit has got ISO 9000 certification and a Rs.45-crore revamp is planned.

The unit may get a fresh lease of life but that is not the situation for the hundreds of people who worked in the sand plant and the batch house who did not have even an inkling of the health hazards they faced while at work. Says Poorani of Arumparthapuram village, who is just back from hospital: "I have already spent several times more money than what I earned in the two years I worked in the factory. I was tempted by the other girls in the village who were already working there to join the glass factory."

Initially, the women, mostly in their teens, could not make the connection between their workplace and their failing health. When they began losing weight and complained of chest pain and coughing, doctors suspected tuberculosis and sent them to the TB sanatorium. Most women of Villianur and Arumparthapuram have been taking medicines for tuberculosis for years. Says Palaniammal of Villianur village, who lost her mother to silicosis last May: "My mother took tablets for TB for over three years until she died. She was the first of the victims and at that time we had no clue she was suffering from silicosis."

Only when five women, all living on one street, died, was the link between their workplace and the disease made. The first victim was Kavitha, who died last May. Many families have sold most of their possessions in order to raise funds for treatment. Several women have undergone surgery for removal of lumps or boils. Each surgical procedure, according to Sushila, mother of Kavitha who died recently, cost an average Rs.7,000. Having sold all that was worth anything, most families resorted to borrowing money. Says Sushila: "Only the debt kept mounting. We saw no improvement in the health of our children."

Kavitha's death was quickly followed by that of Kala, Sarasu, Uma and Vijaya. The fear of death gripped Villianur. With the link between silicosis and the work in the glass factory having become clear, the affected people tried to meet the contractors. But this was in vain. While some with Employees State Insurance cards got medical help in government-run hospitals, most of the sufferers borrowed heavily for treatment.

The story is similar in Arumparthapuram. But the village woke up to the problem after two deaths. Sumathi, Jayanthi, Priya, Anusuya, Bhavani, Valli and Vannila, who have undergone several surgical procedures in the last two years, are now in hospital. But at least they now know they have silicosis.

WHAT has been the role of the Labour Department in safeguarding the health of the workers? According to Rattan Singh, Commissioner of Labour, Pondicherry, under the Factories Act it is the responsibility of managements to inform the Labour Inspector about the possibility of any health risks involved. "But the glass factory failed to do so and hence we had no clue regarding the health hazards," the official says.

But this defence fails as the district secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Durai Arumugam, says that his union, the only one in the unit, had informed the Labour Department in 1998 and in 1999 (a copy of the 1999 letter is in the possession of Frontline) of the hazards the workers faced in the factory. According to Arumugam, action should be taken against those who were in office at that time as they failed to respond to the warnings.

Whoever is to blame, what will be the fate of the affected workers and who is to compensate for their illness and death? According to Rattan Singh, while precautions are being taken to ensure that the occupational hazard does not persist, "the reason for the death and the illness of women from the two villages will have to be investigated before we think of any compensation."

The government, meanwhile, seems to have woken up. According to Health and Labour Minister E. Valsaraj, a high-level panel comprising the Secretaries of Health, Labour and Industry, the Labour Commissioner and directors of the Pollution Control Department and the departments of Industry and Medical Sciences will investigate the death of seven women. Medical screening was undertaken in the factory by the government and 134 workers were recommended for examination.

According to Rajan Salvi, chief general manager of Ace Glass Containers Ltd, the present management has automated the two sections where any occupational hazards may have been involved. According to him, the company is ready to implement the recommendations of the government-appointed committee. "We did not employ those who are affected now. We do not even know what happened then. We have to now find out," he says.

But, according to Arumugam of the CITU, the present management cannot get away by saying it did not employ the workers who are now affected. He says that under the Companies Act, when a new management takes over a unit, it also accepts the liabilities of the previous owner. He argues that Ace Glass Containers should compensate the affected workers and the families of the dead, and claim the compensation amount from the earlier management.

There is, according to Arumugam, a precedent. The termination of a worker by a certain Murugan Rice Mill was challenged in the Labour Court after the mill was sold. But the court ordered the new owner to compensate the worker and said that the new owner "carries over the problems and responsibilities of the earlier owner". So, the new owner compensated the worker and claimed the sum from the earlier owner.

While Salvi of Ace Glass Containers is willing to follow the recommendations of the committee, he also says - almost in the form of a threat - that if things get too hot for the company, it would shut down operations instead of going in for a Rs.45-crore revamp. He points to the potential loss of revenue to the government - Rs.7.2 crores in power charges, Rs.12 crores in excise duty and Rs.2.8 crores in sales tax - and loss of employment to over 1,500 local people.

Representatives of various political parties have threatened action unless the government takes a decision on the matter soon.

Even as the necessity for the Pondicherry government and the company to take the responsibility and compensate the affected workers is being debated, the health of hundreds of women is deteriorating and many are fighting a losing battle for their lives. Relief must come fast if more lives are not to be lost.

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