Migrants die a dusty death here

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Silicosis has claimed several lives in the factories of Godhra.  Anumeha Yadav reports on a tragedy the state refuses to see

Death by inhaling Sumli Hathila lost her husband to silicosis in June 2009. Her brother in Sanasar village died this February; Mukesh died of silicosis. Brother Jaswant , also has silicosis. Their brother Bachubhai and sister Sarlaben too died of the disease
Death by inhaling Sumli Hathila lost her husband to silicosis in June 2009. Her brother in Sanasar village died this February; Mukesh died of silicosis. Brother Jaswant , also has silicosis. Their brother Bachubhai and sister Sarlaben too died of the disease
Photos: Anumeha Yadav

IN NOVEMBER last year, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to pay Rs 3 lakh each as compensation to the families of 238 tribal migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh who died of silicosis, a fatal respiratory disease caused by inhaling silica dust, while working in the state’s factories. The state government has refused to comply with the apex court’s order and made no effort to survey or acknowledge the deaths of tribals in villages of Gujarat from the same disease.

“Both my brothers, my sister and I were working at Bharat Silica in Godhra. I fell ill and returned. Jaswant and Bachu and my sister became weaker and started having trouble breathing the same way, and returned to the village. Then Bachu died last Holi,” said Mukesh Manji Damor. Damor in his early 30s, narrated how he and his brother Jaswant tried to farm their three bigha plot but had to soon mortgage it to put together Rs 60,000 each for their treatment.

Over the next few months, he watched his sister and three cousins, who had also migrated with them to Godhra, succumb to the same illness. Sitting outside his hut in Shankarpura village in Jhalod taluka, Dahod district, a frail-looking Damor described how difficult it was for him to breathe. “It seems to only get worse. Some days I cannot get up at all,” he had said.

Damor died of silicosis a few weeks after TEHELKA interviewed him. His father, Manji Mogha Damor, has received no compensation yet. Although he has a Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) job card, he says he has not found any work in his village under the scheme since 2006.

Less than 2 km away, sitting outside her hut, Marsi Damor described how she has watched her daughter, three of her five sons and a daughter-in-law die in the past four years from the debilitating effects of working in a stone-crushing factory in Godhra. “First it was Shailesh, then nine months later, Udai died. Then three months after that Thaura, then Sharda my daughter-in-law, and then my daughter,” she says. Damor says she is living on rations handed out by her relatives. Mamta, her daughter-in-law who has silicosis too, attempts to talk but gives up as she hardly has a breath to spare.

TEHELKA found the same story of bafflement and helplessness of watching family members die in village after village. Like tribals from neighbouring MP and Rajasthan, tribals from Dahod district migrate to work in quartz and stone-crushing factories in Godhra in the adjoining Panchmahal district. They earn less than minimum wages at the rate of Rs 1.50 per sack they lift, earning Rs 60-75 a day.

Working with silica, which is used to make glass bottles and ceramics, they are exposed to fine dust that progressively corrodes the lungs once inhaled. Doctors frequently misdiagnose silicosis as tuberculosis (TB). Those living with silicosis as well as their families are unsure what is killing them.

Bijiyabhai Nevala Bhagora describes cremating six of his children and their spouses who died of breathlessness and a crippling weakness within a year of each other. “Mana, 17, was the youngest. When I cremated him, there was a white stone in the ashes in the pyre. Even after his body burned, this would not burn. I smashed it — it disintegrated into white dust,” he says, sitting by a corner of his two bigha plot in Dhaula Dhati in Limdi taluka. “Two months later, when my son Kallu died, we found the same white lump in his ashes the next morning.” His neighbour Sumli Hathila describes how her husband Shanti Lal, 32, succumbed the same way. “He came back weak and ill after working at Vejalpur, Godhra for 18 months. He lay in bed and coughed all day and would not eat anything,” she says. The district health centre misdiagnosed Shanti Lal with TB. When seven months of TB treatment did not work, Hathila admitted her husband to a private hospital, borrowing Rs 30,000 from relatives. He died a month later.

Silicosis is a ‘notifiable’ disease under the Factories Act, 1948. This prescribes limits of exposure and rules for any doctor to treat and report instances of such occupational diseases. The Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948, says those working 180 days are entitled to free medical check-ups and a stipend for their family if they die of a disease contacted at work. But factories do not register workers to avoid paying their share of the insurance and these families in Limdi and Jhalod are invisible in the records.

In the 1980s, the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), a unit of the Indian Council of Medical Research, designed equipment to reduce workers’ exposure to silica in factories. The installing cost was just Rs 10,000 but with poor monitoring, factories still flout rules. “Silicosis is a poor man’s disease, so it gets no attention. It has no cure but can be prevented if labour departments carry out physical checks, even if they did not monitor dust levels,” says Dr HN Saiyed, former NIOH director who supervised a study that documented 500 cases of silicosis among migrant workers in Godhra factories in 1982.

IN 2006, Delhi-based NGO PRASAR filed a PIL in the Supreme Court for immediate relief to families of 238 migrant tribal workers from MP who had died of silicosis. The court held Gujarat government responsible for lax enforcement of work safety norms by its labour department.This June, investor-friendly Gujarat government washed its hands off paying 3 lakh as compensation to these families. In 2007, the Modi government had announced a Rs 15,000 crore-Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana for tribal welfare with much fanfare. But for the tribals dying of this deadly disease in Dahod villages, it has nothing to offer. It has refused to acknowledge any death due to silicosis since 2009.

“We will take appropriate action if we find out about any such case. Right now we have not come across any,” says DC Chaudhari, director, Industrial Safety and Health. SS Waghe of the Central Labour Institute, tasked by the SC with monitoring implementation of its November order, comments: “This government’s machinery is in such a bad shape that of 110 posts sanctioned in the labour department, only 55 exist in reality. Qualified certifying surgeons who could survey and diagnose this have not been appointed.”

Anumeha Yadav is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
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