Unhealthy Practice of Negligence

Although mining is a 2000-year-old profession, the government has only focused on revenue till date, and not the people who bring that revenue, or the environment that is destroyed in the process. I have been working on this issue for more than a decade now, since the year 1997. My focus has been the unorganised mine workers engaged in the extraction of minor minerals in the state of Rajasthan.

One of the major struggles with the system is tackling Occupational Health and diseases. Long exposure to dust particles easily reduces a worker’s life expectancy by ten years, and notified occupational diseases like asbestosis, silicosis, and silica-tuberculosis, are common among the labourers. These workers are also invariably denied compensation by their employers. We have been working on Occupational Health ever since we lost one of our community members to asbestosis. It was then we realized that most mine workers have no identity proof and employment proof since they are part of the large unorganized sector. After carefully researching the situation we decided to file a case with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for those who had died of silicosis, an occupational disease. However, with asbestosis our struggle is ongoing, since the National Institute of Occupational Health, in spite of repeatedly medically examining former asbestos mine workers, are yet to disclose the reports. Since 2007, twenty one of the former asbestos workers have died waiting for their medical reports.

While almost 98 percent of the mine workers belong to Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), our focus has been to include them in the development history of the country as participants and not just recipients. Even today many of them have no caste proof or even the BPL proof – depriving them of the nominal welfare schemes that the government unabashedly advertises before every election. In a patriarchal state like Rajasthan, the role of women is crucial in a male dominated profession like mining as well. Yet, marginalised people and women work tirelessly to support their families - fighting the battle of identity in addition to poverty. In the Rajasthan Minor Mineral Policy there are preferential rights given for manual mine workers from SC and ST communities and war widows in allocation of mining leases and licenses. Given the fact that 48 percent of the women workforce in mining are widows (most men succumb to occupational diseases in their early 40s), we are demanding preferential rights for the widows of mine workers rather than war widows. Similarly, we have filed a public interest litigation challenging the government decision to club the preferential categories of SC and ST along with Other backward communities (OBC); in reality, it is the OBCs who are the mine owners and the mine workers belong to SC and ST. Hence, it is evident that from clubbing of the categories, only the OBCs and hence the mine owners will benefit since they already have the clout of money and power.

It has been a long struggle and will continue to be a long road ahead. However, we are hoping to bring in accountability in the system since a few good officials do exist; and the community of mine workers are emerging as leaders to take on the baton. It is a slow process as it is with any work on development: changing attitudes and ensuring that profits are shared, only after it has been earned through fair means. I am optimistic.

By Rana Sengupta, Ashoka Fellow.

He works with cooperatives of stone quarry workers to create innovative systems that give them ownership of mining activities through his organisation Mine Labor Protection Campaign (MLPC). He can be reached at sengupta_rana@yahoo.com