Ten-year-old Nandi’s skin and hair have a reddish-black hue. She has poor vision. And her skin is peeling off below her knees.
Nandi, an orphan girl child, collects iron ore dust droppings from trucks that transport the ore from this area in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district, 160 km south west of Ranchi.
Prolonged exposure to this red dust has given her siderosis, a disease that damages the elasticity of the lungs.
There are thousands of people — young and old — like Nandi in this backward area where the only industry is mining and allied activities.
All of them suffer from similar symptoms. And all of them work for the crusher units — mostly illegal outfits — that operate in the area.
The local doctor has recommended that Nandi, who earns Rs 1,000 a month, go for a lung function test immediately. But her aunt, Shitalmar Hessa, told Hindustan Times: “We cannot afford the tests and the treatment.” The test at a private lab costs Rs 2,000 to 4,000.
“Most labourers lead a hand-to-mouth existence and fighting hunger is their biggest priority. Diseases and changes in skin tone are insignificant issues for them,” said Nazir Khan, a local Congress leader fighting the politically influential companies that run the mines and crusher units.
But these are just visible manifestations of a deeper problem.
“Labourers exposed to this red dust are sure to die early,” said Dr P.K. Mohanty, a specialist in dust-related ailments, who works among the poor in the area.
Workers in this region have a life span of only 40-45 years, added Khan.
Reacting to a pointed query on the issue, Jharkhand Deputy Chief Minister Raghuvar Das said: “I have come to know that there are some pollution-related problems in the iron ore belt. I am going to instruct the district authorities to send us a report. The government will certainly act against the culprits.”
Local officials said the government has no statistics or information on the problem.
But Dr P.K. Gangopadhyay, chief of the Regional Institute of Occupational Health, a government of India body that functions under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), alleged that the Jharkhand government did not document the victims to avoid paying compensation.
Ashok Verma, general manager of Steel Authority of India, which has mines in the area, said the illegal crusher units are playing havoc with the environment.
“Some privately-owned smaller mines and crusher units operating in residential areas are putting people's lives at risk.”
There are 41 mines and more than 200 legally and illegally run crusher units in this iron ore mining hub spread over southwest Jharkhand to south-eastern Orissa, employing youngsters on contract.
The labourers work without safety equipment like nasal masks, earplugs and helmets, which are mandatory under Central Pollution Control Board.