The sight of 45-year-old Nainu Devi, clutching a thick file in her sun-burnt hands was an oddity inside one of the many air-conditioned rooms at the office of the Rajasthan Mining Department.
It has been two years since her husband Bijaram, who worked in a mine in Jodhpur district, succumbed to silicosis, leaving Devi to look after their three children. Devi has been doing the rounds of countless government offices but till all that she has got till now are assurances.
“When my husband received the government certificate after being diagnosed with silicosis in 2015, we never received ₹1 lakh compensation. Two years after his death, we are yet to receive any compensation from the government,” said Devi.
Tales of despair and exploitation by powerful mine-owners resonated at the Rajasthan Mining Department on Monday as several silicosis victims and representatives of NGOs from different parts of the state had come to attend a public hearing presided by TK Joshi, Supreme Court commissioner on Silicosis.
Before the death of her husband, Devi too worked in a mine, breaking stones all day long.
The situation of 30-year-old Gomti Devi, who is from Jodhpur, is the same. Even five years after the death of her husband in 2012, she hasn’t received a single penny from the government. A mother of five, Gomti Devi now works as an anganwadi worker.
“We barely have any money to fend for ourselves. None of my children currently go to school. So far, our family has received nothing from the government as compensation,” said Gomti Devi.
The Rajasthan government currently offers ₹1 lakh to people who are diagnosed with silicosis and ₹3 lakh to families of those who succumbed to the disease.
According to data from the mining department, in the last three years, 2052 labourers working in various mines across the state have been diagnosed with silicosis. And 236 have lost their lives in the past three years.
During the public hearing, it turned out that many of the claims made by mine-owners exist only on paper.
On being asked whether the labourers are given protective masks by the owners, an emphatic no was heard inside the room. “When we demand masks, the mine-owners threaten to shift us to other mines,” said one of the attendees who did not want to be identified.
Many of the people said that obtaining compensation is nothing less than impossible.
“My uncle died of silicosis and now my father has also been diagnosed with it and can’t work anymore. I am the sole breadwinner of our family and also my uncle’s. My ₹7,000 income from working in a factory is not enough to provide for everyone,” said 18-year-old Manakram from Mokhlawas in Jodhpur.
Manakram said that even though they have made numerous rounds to the district headquarters, the compensation has remained elusive due to delays by local patwaris and tehsildars.
“Some of the points that has come up in the public hearing today include the excess time taken by the medical board to diagnose and provide a certificate to silicosis victims, lack of preventive measures and existing laws which needs to be effectively enforced,” said TK Joshi, Supreme Court commissioner on silicosis.
Joshi added that a streamlined system needs to be created to properly document information about all the victims and compensation given to them. “We are also looking at the Haryana model wherein pension is given to the victims of silicosis and their families,” Joshi told HT.