Kids face health hazards near iron ore mines in Jharkhand | india | Hindustan Times
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Kids face health hazards near iron ore mines in Jharkhand

Tucked in a tattered bed sheet, nine-year-old Somrai Majhi is in deep slumber when a speeding dumper laden with iron ore passes by his hutment at Gua village in Singhbhum district of Jharkhand virtually throwing him off his wooden cot.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2009 20:31 IST
B Vijay Murty

Tucked in a tattered bed sheet, nine-year-old Somrai Majhi is in deep slumber when a speeding dumper laden with iron ore passes by his hutment at Gua village in Singhbhum district of Jharkhand virtually throwing him off his wooden cot.

He steps out of his house only to be greeted by a cloud of red ash the heavy vehicles have left behind. Vehicles keep crossing, throwing ash and other pollutants into the atmosphere but it doesn't stop the child from freshening up for the day and eating in the open.

By 8 am, his parents and other elders in the family are away for work at the nearby mines and iron ore crushing units. Minutes later, little Somrai is also ready for work. No, he doesn't go to the mines or crusher units.

Accompanied by several other children his age in the locality, Somrai briskly collects some bricks and puts blockades on the road near his house.

The road connects several crushers and the Railway sliding yard. Every time a dumper arrives, the children stretch out their hands and the driver hands them some cash without asking any questions. Only then is the blockade cleared. It is put back in place soon for the next vehicle.

By the evening, the children manage to collect a few hundred rupees, which are distributed among their parents after they return from work. The easy money, however, comes at a heavy price.

From head to toe, the children are almost covered with red ash. Their skin, their hair, and even their eyelids get a thick coat of iron ore dust.

Nobody seems bothered. This is a common phenomenon in the iron ore belt, which includes places like Jagannathpur, Noamundi, Gua, Jamda, and Badbil in Orissa where 30 per cent of India's iron ore reserves lie.

An HT team which travelled from Chaibasa to Badbil found the children's condition deplorable. Thousands of them are losing their childhood in the rush for wealth stored inside the vast iron ore mines across the region.

The parents, when queried, blame the government for their miserable condition.

"It is our land. Outsiders are exploiting it recklessly. While we cannot take the law into our own hands, we can at least tax them (contractors) to compensate us for the health hazard we face. The money our children get is used for their treatment and other expenses," said Somrai's mother, Dukhi Majhi, a mine labourer.

The majority of children do not go to school for there are no schools in the interior areas. Healthcare facilities are virtually missing. The staple diet of these children is starch-rice. From a very young age, they get hooked to hadia and mahua (locally made brews), which is easily available.

The largescale mining operations have adversely affected the groundwater table in many areas with the result that yield of water from the wells of adjoining villages has declined drastically. Hence, a bath during summer is a luxury for many children.

"We admit that local people, especially children, have paid a very heavy price following the boom the iron ore industry witnessed between 2006-08," said K. Sharma, a mines manager at Thakurani. "Nobody seems bothered about infrastructure development in the region," he said, adding that before the reckless mining activity began, the tribals' faces used to shine, and they were in good health. Today, most of them die before stepping into old age due to constant exposure to iron ore dust.

Dr Shiv Shankar Birua, deputy regional director, Health said that silica is the common chemical compound found in iron ore and other minerals mined extensively in Jharkhand's West Singhbhum area. He said silica dust inhaled in very small quantities over time can lead to silicosis - a form of cancer -- as the dust gets lodged in the lungs and continuously irritates them, reducing lung capacities as silica does not dissolve over time.

"This effect can be an occupational hazard for people working with sandblasting, products that contain powdered crystalline silica, and so on.

Children, asthmatics of any age, allergy sufferers and the elderly (all of whom have reduced lung capacities) can be affected in much shorter periods of time," Dr Birua said.

Dr Birua said regular sprinkling of water on the passages through which the ore laden vehicles cross can minimise the diseases to a great extent. He said it is essential to keep children away from the areas and localities near the mines.