Ramila Malsingh is not yet into her 30s. But her skinny frame, drooping shoulders and pallid complexion gives her the look of an aged woman, managing to barely walk a few steps before stopping to regain her breath.
But Ramila is considered “lucky” in her village Kachaldhara in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua, a highly drought-prone district dotted with degraded wastelands and home to several tribal communities of the state.
A widow and mother of two, Ramila is among the only eight people in the Bhilala tribal village who are surviving despite suffering from silicosis, a health condition marked by inflammation and scarring of lungs due to prolonged exposure to fine silica dust.
Ramila’s husband and 33 others have died over the last 15 years, their lungs inflamed by deadly dust particles while working in a quartz crushing factory in Godhra of neighbouring Gujarat for just six to eight months in the year 2000.
But despite death and disease stalking these villagers and many more like them in three districts of Jhabua, Alirajpur and Dhar, their wait of compensation from the Gujarat government and rehabilitation from the MP government continues.
“We’re totally dependent on my father-in-law for survival,” Ramila told Hindustan Times at her modest house in the village, nearly 350 km from state capital Bhopal.
Hundreds of landless workers and marginal farmers from the bordering districts travel hundreds of kms every year to Gujarat in what is described as distress migration, seeking work in mines and factories to earn a livelihood.
Often forced to work in hazardous conditions without protective gears, their health takes a beating very quickly.
A survey conducted by an NGO in 2011-12 found that at least 1,701 persons in 102 villages of three districts were silicosis affected and 503 of them had died. The latest death reported in the village was of a 30-year-old woman last month.
Pursuant to a Supreme Court order, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had in November 2010, directed the Gujarat government to pay compensation of Rs 3 lakh each to the kin of 238 persons who have succumbed to silicosis in these districts. The commission also asked the MP government to provide relief and rehabilitation to 304 silicosis-affected people.
The MP government did initiate some measures but most of them have fallen through, according to survivors and activists working for them.
The Gujarat government has meanwhile remained adamant on not giving any compensation, saying that there was no evidence that the affected persons had worked in Gujarat factories, as they carry no such documents.
“The NHRC has become an intervener in a case already being heard in Supreme Court after the Gujarat government’s refusal. The next hearing is on August 4. But this does not help the affected people. They continue to suffer and die,” said Amulya Nidhi of NGO Swasthya Adhikar Manch.
Dinesh Raisingh of Kachaldhara, himself affected by the disease, also works for the cause under the banner of Silicosis Peedit Sangh.
He told HT that while death compensation is nowhere to be seen, even rehab measures by MP government is not working. Some affected persons in the village started getting pension of Rs 200 per month two years ago, but it too stopped in 2014.
Also some people including Ramila got the first installment for a house under Indira Aawas Scheme, but are still awaiting the second installment.
“We are demanding that the survivors should get a monthly pension of at least Rs 1000 per month and the MP government should give an interim compensation of Rs one lakh per family pending the SC decision in the case,” Raisingh said.
The Jhabua district collector in-charge, Dhanraju S, admited problems with the rehabilitation process but added that the district authorities have taken up various measures to provide relief to the affected. Chief secretary Anthony de Sa said he would find out about the exact state of affairs and take due action.