Silicosis catches them young in the quarries
For 19-year-old Lakshmi (name changed), silicosis came at an early age.
“I used to break cobblestones here since I was a child. A few years ago, I started having breathing problems and was later diagnosed with silicosis,” she said.
During the six years she broke cobblestones along with other children, the threat of this incurable disease loomed, but she did not have a choice.
A fatal respiratory disease that results from breathing in silica dust from the mines and sandstone quarries, silicosis has been diagnosed in more than 5,000 workers in Rajasthan in the last four years by government medical boards.
Now, it threatens the children engaged in the task, some as young as six years old, in villages such as Budhpura, Dabi and Dhaneshwar in Bundi district.
The sight of frail men and women breaking cobblestones in the stone quarries of Bundi district in Rajasthan is quite common. Within a few years, they resemble people much older than their age, occasionally panting and having trouble breathing.
Lakshmi received Rs 1 lakh as relief from the government in March this year but prior to that all her treatment expenses had to be arranged through a loan taken from a local moneylender after mortgaging their house.
Though she has now stopped working in the quarries and is undergoing a course in tailoring with the support of a local NGO, her family has to depend on her mother and 16-year-old brother, breaking cobblestones, to repay the loan. Her ill father cannot work regularly.
Another 17-year-old girl, Vimla (name changed) has been experiencing breathing problems for over a year although she has not been diagnosed with silicosis.
“We don’t really have a choice to do anything else as we don’t know about any other livelihood,” she said.
An Unending Wait For Compensation
While silicosis threatens an entire generation, government has promised Rs 3 lakh to families of people who died of the disease. But the promise has kept many waiting, aggravating the problem.
“Even after a year since my husband passed away due to the disease, I am yet to receive any compensation,” said Jamna Bai, a resident of Silica Colony of Dhaneshwar village, a settlement of labourers engaged in mining and cobblestone-breaking.
Occupants of the colony said many a times the mine and quarry owners don’t want their workers to feature in the list of people suffering from Silicosis.
“I came to Bundi from Mathura in 1986, and have been working in the stone quarries as a labourer till I was diagnosed with silicosis and tuberculosis. Today, my son is also a labourer. This is a dangerous place where generations get trapped into breaking cobblestones and families are wiped out,” said 66-year-old Dulichand Yadav.
He said that apart from the few who have received the relief from the government, none of those affected by the disease have received any sort of assistance or compensation from their employers.
Expressing concern over the issue, N L Mina, director, Directorate of Child Welfare, Rajasthan government told HT that the concerned child welfare committee (CWC) will be directed to look into the matter.
“If there are children who are suffering from silicosis as a result of child labour, then the government will take steps for their rehabilitation,” Mina said.