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Print edition : Apr 11, 2003 T+T-

THE couple Sushila and Selvaraj of Villianur village double as construction labourers and farm workers, depending on where they can find work on a particular day. In 1994, together they earned Rs. 50 a day - that is, on the days they found work.

With three daughters to feed and educate, they found it difficult to make ends meet. Many a day, Sushila recalls, the family would go to bed hungry.

Kavitha, their eldest, then 14, decided to give up studies and take up a job. Around that time her close friends, Uma, Sarasu and Vijaya, who lived on the same street, had, through a contractor, got employment in a glass factory at Thondamanatham, not far from their village. Encouraged by her friends, Kavitha joined the "young working brigade" from the village.

For Rs. 24, they worked for 10 hours a day, sieving silica sand and sometimes even segregating the processed material. Says Sushila: "Kavitha used to say that it was the same job she did at home. Only the materials were different."

In 1997, Kavitha's younger sister Chitra also decided to join the glass factory to supplement the family income. No more would the family go to bed hungry. But this happy situation lasted only two years.

In mid-1998, Kavitha started to complain of chest and body ache. A doctor gave some medicines, but she did not get much relief. By mid-1999 she began to lose weight and would be racked by coughing. She went to the Villianur public health centre and was directed to the Tuberculosis Hospital in Pondicherry. Here the doctors said she had TB and prescribed 60 injections and medicines to be taken over a period of seven months.

No one suspected that Kavitha's work was the cause of her illness, and she continued to go to the glass factory, though absenting herself frequently.

As Kavitha was not given an ESI card, the family had to pay for the medical expenses. When the family income was not enough, Sushila began selling the meagre valuables - a pair of earrings, a bangle and some vessels. Then Sushila began to borrow from money-lenders. For a Rs.1,000 loan she had to pay Rs.100 every month. Several trips that the family made to meet the contractor were in vain. But despite expensive medical help, Kavitha's health deteriorated. She found it hard to breathe, became weak and complained of chest pain. As she was unable to go to work, her contract was terminated.

One night in April 2002, a breathless Kavitha almost choked. Selvaraj rushed her to a dispensary, where she was directed to the TB Hospital. She was admitted there the next morning. Surgery on the chest was done at a cost of Rs.7,000, but Kavitha did not recover. Another surgery was performed. The family was deep in debt, having borrowed heavily. Says Sushila: "We must have spent several times the money Kavitha earned from working in the glass factory." After 12 days in hospital, Kavitha died without recovering from the two surgical procedures. According to Kavitha's death certificate, she died of TB.

The tale of woe of Sushila and Selvaraj does not end here. Their second daughter Chitra has contracted the disease. Though her contract was terminated in 2002, when the company automated the two units she was working in, having worked there for four years was enough. When this correspondent visited Selvaraj's house, Chitra's racking cough could be heard outside. She also suffered from chest pain. The family has barely recovered from Kavitha's death and now it has to take care of Chitra. More money is being borrowed.

Says Sushila: "I have borrowed from all possible sources. I just do not know how to take care of Chitra if her health deteriorates. I hope the government and the company would do something for people like me, who have already lost their children to the dreaded disease or are struggling just to keep them alive."

Kavitha's friend and neighbour, the 21-year-old Uma, died last year in a similar manner. Uma was also operated upon at the TB Hospital and a tissue sample sent to Chennai for a biopsy. The cause of death was silicosis. This was when the village woke up to the problem.

Uma's mother Selvi says she can never forgive herself for having sent Uma to work in the glass factory. "She was a good student, but I forced her to go to work for want of money to run the family. Hunger, I am sure, would have been better that losing my child," she says.

Vijaya (21) died early this year, and her mother Saradha is inconsolable. "When I sent my child every day to work in the glass factory, I never realised that I was, in fact, sending her to death," she says.

Sushila, Saradha and Selvi say their daughters suffered a lot in the last two years. Death, they believe, was a relief. They want the government and the factory management to compensate the families of the women who died and others who are in various stages of the disease. "If these victims are not proof enough of the link between the disease and the work they had been doing in the factory, what is?" asks Sushila.

The suspicion in the village is that in the case of many more women the cause of death may have been silicosis. Says Selvi: "Now we know for sure that seven women have died of silicosis. But there are several women who died before the link was made. They had also worked in the glass factory." She wants the government's investigation to cover all the women who ever worked there.