(Mining) Tales Stones Tell

The mining sector in India consists of two main segments - Major Minerals (iron ore, bauxite, etc.) and Minor Minerals (such as stones). The labor force that works in the area of Major Minerals is controlled by the central government. It is, therefore, well organized, in a way that there are pay commissions and special laws that govern its functioning. The Minor Mineral mining sector, on the other hand, is spread across the country. In the case of Major Minerals, it is concentrated significantly in the North of India and few areas in the South. Stone quarries are treated as minor mines and left under the control of the state government. It is treated as a small-scale industry and understood to be 'labor-intensive'. There are no specific laws that address the concerns of workers in the stone quarry sector.

Quarries have typically been a business that involves caste and community. On a social level, there are particular communities that depend on the quarry for a source of survival. Ethnic communities like Oddar, Vadars and Od have been involved in occupations related to digging earth, carrying sand, and breaking stones for many years. In 1993, the Central Government created a national policy for each state to follow the State Mineral Policy, in the backdrop of an increase in global demand for minerals. This led to the widespread use of machinery in mining, and the gradual inflow of socio-economically weaker communities, such as the tribal.

Unlike in the case of Major Mineral mines, the predominant communities involved in stone quarrying are Vimukta Jaties, nomadic tribes. This presents a different set of issues for the Minor Mineral mine sector. First, since they are a migrant people, the prejudice starts building against the so-called 'outsider'. Vimukta Jaties are always looked at as outsiders. Because of this tradition, they are unable to create any attachment to their villages or claim any kind of social welfare, as the villages do not recognize them.  Second, since their houses are not enrolled, the workers are not supplied water or other basic needs, as villages completely disown them. The contractors disown these workers as well by dismissing them as migrant workers, uncertain of how long will the workers work for them. So, the companies do not keep a record of the workers. They are neither enrolled in any of the district labor department offices, nor are they registered in a central labor department. Third, they are completely uncared for by political leaders, as they are never enfranchised. Bureaucrats ignore this community, as the workers do not make up for any of the census in the country. They are not covered under the education census, nor are they in the public census. In short, no surveys cover this community. Politically, these people exist without being on record.

Around 26 percent of informal workers in India are engaged in the quarry sector, with a large number of the nationwide informal workforce also engaged in agriculture, fisheries and construction. Workers, who have been involved in handpicking, and hand lifting, are losing their jobs because of the use of machinery, as the requirement of the quarry sector is becoming more technical. Youth, who are already working, need to undergo technical training and get a license to operate machinery.  Today, almost 95 percent of the youth do not have knowledge of operating the machines or own a license.

 

By Bastu Rege, Ashoka Fellow.

 

Bastu Rege is working with the informal labor force in the stone quarries of Maharashtra, specifically with migrants who have been denied fundamental rights for decades.