Earlier this month, the death of seven workers of stone crusher units in Birbhum’s Kantapahari, allegedly due to starvation, had hogged the limelight.
In fact, over the last three months, as many as 20 people working in these units have died. Though the administration did not confirm that starvation was the cause of these deaths, it was widely suspected to be the reason.
However, during a recent health check-up in the affected villages - Kantapahari, Murgadanga, Kanchannala, Kalipur, Shaldanga, Gobrajuli and others, all in Nalhati-1 block of Rampurhat subdivision - the administration stumbled upon a shocking truth.
Most of the residents of these poverty stricken villages are suffering from silicosis, a chronic lung disease, caused by breathing bits of silica dust.
Since most of those who underwent the check-up used to work in stone crusher units, it was no surprise how they had contracted the disease.
Incidentally, the stone crusher industry in Birbhum is largely concentrated in four blocks - Md Bazar, Nalhati-I, Murarai-I and Rajgram.
At least 90,000 people eke out a hand-to-mouth existence by working in these units.
Officials said that while it is possible to survive extreme poverty - all many residents here get is water and tal sash (puff of palm fruit) - it was the long hours of work in air densely polluted with silica dust that was slowly killing these residents.
Silicosis impairs their natural immune system and leaves them vulnerable to fatal diseases.
So, sources add, it now seemed that of the 20 who died, most had also been suffering from silicosis. Sadly, nothing much has changed for these workers in all these years. The age-old ‘tikli’ system of payment is still in force.
Workers don’t get paid according to the minimum wage system but on the basis of the number of baskets they carry during the day. Each time they take a load, they collect a token (tikli), which they deposit at the end of the day for money.
They get around Rs 80-100 after a hard day’s work.
Not only are they deprived of proper wages, they also lose out on other government benefits for daily wage earners. Each hour of work probably costs them a day of their life.
The industry is so polluting that people in nearby villages also get affected by silicosis.
“In this disease, the immune system is affected and it often leads to cancer. It is difficult to diagnose at the early stage. Silicosis cannot be cured. Prevention is the only way,” said Nalhati-I block medical officer health (BMOH) Dr Kaloboron Banerjee.
When contacted, the sub-divisional officer of Rampurhat, Ratneshwar Roy, said that the administration had organised health camps in the area. Most people were found to be suffering from silicosis.
“We will ask the owners of the crusher units to take pollution-control measures,” Roy said.