It’s a tragic irony in Madhya Pradesh: Labourers dying to produce a product very few people use any more.
Thousands of families work all day in Mandsaur, the sole producer in India of white and red slate, to make those rectangular, chalk-like ‘pencils’ used by primary student in rural government schools.
What the labourers don’t know — and the government has so far refused to acknowledge — is that a large chunk of these pencils never even reach the rural markets.
Instead, they are used to conceal opium as it is smuggled across the state border illegally; in addition to slate, Mandsaur is also a large producer of opium.
There is no other means of employment here. So the illiterate, landless locals — and often their children as well — risk contracting silicosis, an incurable lung disease, as the silica dust drifts into their lungs.
Most of the labourers work in dark, dingy homes, putting entire families at risk.
Official records say 569 people have died of silicosis in Mandsaur over the last 24 years. Unofficial estimates suggest that the actual number is at least three times that.
The irony of these deaths has not gone unnoticed.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been recommending
for over 18 years that Madhya Pradesh act against the slate pencil manufacturers.
In 1991, then NHRC chairperson Justice Rangnath Mishra visited the region and recommended action against these units.
As recently as last year, an NHRC report recommended a ban on the production of slate pencils altogether, in the interests of the workers and children employed in the units.
The report also pointed out that slate pencils were no longer in use and their
production and distribution was just a cover for the
massive illegal trade in opium.
Mandsaur, one of the largest producers of legal opium in the world, also has a bustling illicit business. Many of the district’s 109 slate pencil units, the NHRC found, were using crates of their product to smuggle opium.
No action has followed this report. Meanwhile, seven more people have died and five others contracted silicosis in Mandsaur.
“There are practical problems with banning these units,” says State Labour Commissioner Ashwini Kumar Rai. “Closure will throw large numbers of people out of work. Steps are being taken to prevent child labour.”
Government sources, meanwhile, say slate pencils aren’t going away any time soon.
“The nexus between the politician, opium producer, peddler and slate pencil
unit owner is too strong,” said a government source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
For the impoverished locals, that nexus is a death sentence.
“I have trouble breathing and I can’t work any more,” says 40-year-old Manohar Singh Rajput of Ralaita village, a father of five. “I worked at the slate pencil units since I was 15… there is no other work to be had here. A few years ago, doctors said I have silicosis. I get Rs 365 a month as medical assistance, but it’s not enough to feed my five children, so they too work at the quarries. What choice do we have?”