How Rajasthan’s mine workers keep languishing without any identity
Thirty-five-year-old Vimla Devi is mourning for her father-in-law, Basti Ram (60) who died barely three months after she lost her husband Purna Ram (42). Both men worked in the stone mines around Choti Khatu, in Nagaur district, Rajasthan. Both succumbed to silicosis. Vimla Devi has three children to look after. Her sons, 15 and 11, and her five-year-old daughter had not even been able to come to terms with their father’s death when their grandfather passed away. The family is left with no earning member. Ashok, the eldest son, has no choice but to take up a job in the same dreaded mines. The family has still not received any compensation from the government.
Silicosis is a deadly lung disease caused by breathing tiny bits of silica, a mineral that is part of sand, rock, and mineral ores such as quartz. And silicosis cases are increasing by the year. There were 2201 reported cases in 2015, 5058 cases in 2016 and 1182 up to April 2017. Observers feel that this may well be the tip of the iceberg, as most of the cases go unreported. Pekham Basu, who researched on the ‘Widows of the Mine’ in Jodhpur district, says that the health system usually fails to inform the patient that he is suffering from silicosis. “Often it misinforms them as TB, and at the very end stage as silicosis.”
Sukharam Choudhary, former mine worker, silicosis patient, and now president of the Khan Mazdoor Ekta Sanghatan, Nagaur, says that it’s rare for a male to live beyond 60 years in the area, as most men who work as mine labourers die in their 40s and early 50s. The situation in another mining district that HT visited is no different. In the mine workers settlement of Jodhpur’s Bhil Basti 12 Meel, almost every home had a widow and a similar story to tell. Basu says that mine workers in the informal economy have little or no knowledge of the risks they face at work and are highly susceptible to occupational diseases such as silicosis and asbestosis (asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by over exposure to asbestos).
MINES OF DEATH
“My 2014-16 study of Jodhpur district points out that the husband starts falling ill in his 20s, and many die young in their 30s (28.2%), 40s (28.2%), 50s (21.8%) and 60s (15.3%), thus creating villages of widows – 33.3% become widows in their 30s while 28.2% become widows in their 40s,” says Basu. Compelled by poverty due to ailing husbands and growing families, they too start working in the mines.
Certified silicosis patients from the Pneumoconiosis Medical Board and Medical Colleges, are supposed to get monetary compensation from the state government since 2010: one lakh during their lifetime and after their death, the families get three lakh.
But though Purna Ram and Basti Ram were both given silicosis certification, no compensation has come so far. Vimla Devi says that the death rituals were so expensive that she had to take a loan of more than a lakh. Even if the post-death compensation comes in, the family will not be compensated for the one lakh that each of the men should have got get during their lifetime. And so, the debt cycle continues. “Khan mein kaam karna padega hum sab ko…humare paas na zameen hai, na kheti…” (We all will have to work in the mines… we have no land or agriculture…)
Lack of monetary compensation is one of biggest tragedies that the 33 lakh workers who work in mines face – because compensation hinges on proof of identity as mine labourers, which they don’t have. This also means no social benefits, provident fund or minimum wages. “In the last two years, the process to claim compensation across Rajasthan has become very cumbersome. The administration keeps introducing new rules to release monetary compensation, and all these require the work proof of miners,” says Rana Sengupta, managing trustee and CEO, Mine Labour Protection Campaign. For instance, in Nagaur district, the applicant for monetary relief has to mention the mine or quarry license number and the name of the mine owner.
Why is the work proof so hard to get? Sukharam Choudhary says that license numbers are not written on any of the mines. “We do not even know if the mines are legal. We are illiterate and do not know who owns the mine. Payments are made by the manager, and the workers only know the manager… if we ask questions about the license number and the owner, we are told to focus on the payments. We are not given any identity cards or proof of employment to show that we are mine workers.”
Choudhary says that it is an ordeal for the widows, who are mostly illiterate, to get compensation. The paper work is tedious and involves postmortem report, death certificate, ID proofs and account details of the beneficiary. “The applicant also has to mention the mine or quarry license number, and the name of the mine owner. Where will the widow bring these numbers and details from?” There are other problems too: “It can take two years for the relief to come and the money is directly credited in the bank account. The bank account is opened after the death and it becomes non-functional due to no transactions. There is no money to eat, where will the widows get the money to show bank transactions?”
As HT travelled through the mining areas and mining settlements in Nagaur and Jodhpur, not a single person had any proof of identity of a mine worker either from a mine owner or from the government. We were informed that illegal mines were thriving in the area. And our ground check confirmed that none of the mines had any board or identification mentioning the details of the mine owner and or the mining or quarry license number.
WATCH: IDENTITY WOES OF RAJASTHAN’S MINE WORKERS
The mining engineer at Nagaur, V S Jaipal acknowledged while he had cleared the silicosis payment cases, there are delays as the payment involves multiple government departments. Regarding the mandatory mentioning of the license number and name of the mine owner, Jaiapl said it is the duty of the government to authenticate that the worker is actually a mine labourer. “If the documents are in place, they will be given monetary relief,” he added. On the working conditions of mine workers and their identity proof, Jaipal directed us to the state labour department: “That the labour department can tell. We have no information.”
A couple of blocks away, Dinesh Sharma, labour inspector, Nagaur, directed us to the central government labour department: “The central government is responsible for mine workers. The office is in Ajmer. We have limitations. In case of casualty during work, the compensation claim can be addressed by the state labour department.”
PASSING THE BUCK
Mine workers are in sharp contrast to unorganised construction workers, who are also susceptible to occupational diseases such as silicosis. But the construction workers fall under the purview of the state labour department, which has organised them under a Building and Other Construction Worker Board. This Board is responsible for their identity and welfare.
Such a Board and network doesn’t exist for mine workers, as they come under the central government. Sengupta says that the basic lacuna is in the policy. “Mining is a state subject, while mine workers are a central subject. The state does not have the right to inspect mine workers. Any kind of enforcement or violation falls under the central government. Out of the 33,000 mines operating in Rajasthan, only 10 per cent mines have given notice of operation to the central government labour department. There is no coordination between the centre and the state.”
The Rajasthan Mineral Policy 2017 does mandate that the mine or quarry licencee should maintain and keep ready for inspection, a daily attendance register and address of labours employed in the quarry, but that is seldom done, says Sengupta. “In most cases, mine owners end up registering names of their managers and kith and kin as mine workers to fulfill mandatory obligations.”
Miners cite their own reasons for their inability to maintain employment records. Jeevraj Meghwal, a mine owner in Jodhpur district, says that it is impossible for any mine owner to authenticate if the worker has worked in a mine and for how long. “They are casual labourers, working for a couple of days from mine to mine, some work on hourly or task basis. Some migrate from one area to another.” While Meghwal claims that he maintains a record of the workers, he says that earlier the records and pattas were kuchcha and a worker usually starts developing the disease after 10 years of work.
Lack of attendance records comes to the rescue of mine owners in many a ways. MK Devarajan, former Member of Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission, who worked extensively for the mine workers, explains, “The affected persons and kin of the deceased are theoretically also entitled to approach the Labour Court and seek compensation from their employer under the Workmen’s Compensation Act. However, not a single case has been filed in the State so far. Mine owners do not keep employment records and daily attendance, and enforcement authorities do not bother.”
Observers say it is humanly not possible for the central labour department officers to monitor mine workers. “The officers have the responsibility of labour in all central government establishments operating in a state. Also, one labour enforcement officer is in charge of four districts, which in Rajasthan would translate to approximately two lakh mine workers! Besides, there is no verifiable data between the names of the labourer in the register and those who are actually employed,” says Sengupta.
Ironically, the District Mineral Foundation Trust (DMFT) fund meant for the welfare of mining communities is lying unutilised. Sanjay Dubey, from the Department of Mines and Geology, Udaipur, confirmed that as of May 31, 2017, DMFT had ~835 crore and the department was weighing various projects.
Devarajan says the Mine Department is interested only in revenue maximisation and politicians patronise the mine owners because of their paying capacity. “The dichotomy of responsibilities enables both the central and state government authorities to maintain that the responsibility lies with the other and get away with inaction. This passing the buck game has been played several times,” he says.
As the centre and the state keep passing the buck, everyone, from the administration to the mine owners shirk their responsibilities.
And mine workers remain on the periphery, despite being the backbone of a growing industry. “Mining accounts for 6-8% of the country’s GDP, is the second highest employer after agriculture and in almost all the 11 mining intensive states the situation of informal mineworkers is the same,” says Basu.
And that is evident. In Bhat Basti, a miner settlement in Jodhpur, only two children go to school. Child marriage is the norm. The basti has no electricity, water or community toilet, but the adults have a voter ID card, clearly indicating their importance as a vote bank. While a school or medical centre are nowhere in the vicinity of miner settlement, there are plenty of liquor shops.