Mine Labour Protection Campaign (or MLPC) was formed in 1994 and emerged as a movement, in response to the problems and needs of the millions of unorganized mine and quarry labourers throughout the state of Rajasthan, India. (Rajasthan is the largest state of India, located in the west on the border with Pakistan.) MLPC works to empower mine and quarry workers in Rajasthan to fight injustice and inequality through the organization of groups such as self -help groups, unions and cooperatives. At present there are a state-level union of unorganized mine workers which is a federation of seven local unions, 14 cooperatives in six districts and a federation of 21 women mine workers’ self-help groups (SHGs). MLPC’s goals and activities centre around community development, advocacy, income generation and policy-level work.
MLPC has been a member of the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims (ANROAV) since 2009. The following article looks at the mining industry of Rajasthan, the conditions that mine workers are working in and the occupational hazards and diseases that they are vulnerable to. MLPC has played a crucial role in organizing and empowering these victims, leading to the emergence of leaders from the grassroots who are strong empowered women that fight for their rights and play a strong role in unifying workers and organizing a movement at the ground.
Mine Workers and Their Predicament in India
India’s major quarries are spread over the states of Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Almost everywhere they are worked by internal migrant labour—people forced by poverty, drought, famine, or failed crops to take up the hardest possible employment opportunities. In Rajasthan alone, there are 2.5 million mine workers employed in over 30,000 small and large mines. Ninety-eight percent of this workforce is tribal or dalit (belonging to the ‘untouchable’ class), which places them among the most marginalized of India’s poor, systematically deprived of their proper wages and state-sponsored welfare and social security schemes.
The Indian economy is characterized by a high level of informal or unorganized employment which comprises 93 percent of the country’s workforce. The ‘highly distressed’ categories among them often become bonded labourers, migrant workers, or casual and contract labourers. MLPC carried out a survey in 2001 that revealed that 97% of workers in sandstone mines are indebted and a majority of them are in bondage. These debts are passed on from one family member to the other or from one generation to the next, and can even cause a worker to be sold to another contractor.
Women are the most exploited, without health care benefits such as maternity leave; they often return to work a day after childbirth for fear of lost wages. In Rajasthan, the working life of a rural female worker is 24.6 years. The work participation rate (WPR) peaks in the 25-29 years age group. High levels of WPR are recorded among currently married females, illiterate females, scheduled castes (dalit) or scheduled tribes (adivasis or indigenous people).1 [Editor’s Note: scheduled castes and tribes are those castes and tribes explicitly recognized by the Constitution of India for protective arrangements.]
Despite a Supreme Court ruling instructing them to do so, contractors fail to incorporate safety and environmentally friendly standards at the mines. Profits have replaced worker safety. The miners work under subhuman conditions for long hours with an average of six accidental deaths a day. The lack of records helps mine owners deny such accidents. Corruption is rampant and most state officials are hand-in-glove with mine owners and contractors, while the fear of losing their livelihoods keeps workers from reporting accidents to the police.
CaseStudy of an Emerging Leader
Raju Devi was born into a family of mine workers in Jodhpurin the year 1975. Her father and two brothers worked in the mine, while she and her four sisters stayed at home along with their mother. Raju Devi was married off when she was three months old* and she moved in with her husband when she was 15 years. It so happened that Govardhan, her husband, had been working as a daily wage mine labourer since he was 10 years old. His other family members too worked in the mines. Seven years ago, Govardhan died, leaving behind four children: a son, Shravan who is now 17 years old; a daughter, Kanchan, who is now 14; a son, Jeetu, who is 12, and the youngest son, Kishen, who is seven.
|Ranju Devi with her children Kanchan, Jeetu and Kishen. Photo: MLPC|
Govardhan had vomited blood one day and started treatment. A fortnight later he was still vomiting blood and also had fever and coughing. He was rushed to the hospital where after two days he passed away. It was then diagnosed that Govardhan had been suffering from silicosis. Neither he nor the doctors treating him at the local health centre had any knowledge of the disease.
As fate would have it, and reflecting the vicious cycle of poverty, the burden of taking care of the family fell on the eldest son, Shravan, who was then 10 years old. He became a mine worker for the upkeep of his mother and young siblings since that tender age. Even today he works in the mines. When the youngest son Kishen was six months old (three months after his father passed away), Raju Devi learned that he too had silicosis. Kishen stays at home with his mother, while his sister and brother go to school. For two years since her husband passed away, Raju Devi remained a home-maker and took care of Kishen. However, her husband had been in debt and she had financial liabilities to cope with, apart from social and emotional loss. For a year, she too worked in the mines. Having never worked in a mine, she could not keep up with the hard work and left after a year. Her natal family and her husband’s elder brother took care of her and the children.
She learned about the work of MLPC only two years ago through Suji Devi, her neighbor. For a year and a half she worked tirelessly as a volunteer since she was inspired by the work. It was only six months ago that she joined MLPC as a staff in charge of a crèche. Today she is part of the core committee that works with silicosis victims. She handles the monthly camps (held twice every month) and is responsible for enrolling family members and widows for government schemes. Along with Suji Devi, she too leads organized protests and engages in dialogue with government officials.
As a widow of a silicosis victim she did receive INR 100,000 (approx. US$2,200). Part of that money she used to pay off the debts of her late husband; while she used the rest of it to lend INR 50,000 (approx. US$1,1,00) to her husband’s elder brother, buy two life insurances for herself and her older son; and donate INR 5,000 (approx. US$110) to the union of which she is a member.
At a personal level, she is constantly worried about the health of Kishen. She is also fighting social odds to keep Kanchan in school. As is the trend in Rajasthan, her family and friends are pressuring her to marry off her 14-year-old daughter, who aspires to become a policewoman. Raju Devi wants to help Kanchan fulfill her aspiration. Shravan continues to work in the mines, since with spiraling expenses, it is difficult for Raju to manage the family.
*Although slowly decreasing, the practice of child marriage can still be found in parts of India.
Occupational Health Hazards
The communities MLPC works with in advocating for occupational health rights are generally migratory workers drawn from Rajasthan and throughout Indiawho settle in mining areas in Rajasthan for work. Their livelihood generally consists of agriculture but they are forced to migrate and take up mining due to the harsh weather conditions in Rajasthan. The communities we are working with are from scheduled castes (dalit) or scheduled tribes (Adivasis or indigenous people). The mine workers are generally uneducated, unskilled labourers and very poor. In most instances, every member of a single family will be employed in the mines, including women and young children.
Poor working conditions in the stone quarries of Rajasthan lead to severe occupational health hazards and diseases. Dangerous diseases like silicosis and tuberculosis are widespread among the quarry workers of Rajasthan. According to a study conducted in Rajasthan by Prof. P.K. Gupta and his associates at the department of chest diseases of Dr SN Medical College, Jodhpur, and the non-profit organization Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti, radiological investigations showed that 56% of mineworkers were affected with silicosis or silicotuberculosis.
Silicosis is a respiratory disease contracted through the inhalation of silica particles commonly found in sandstone quarries. Due to the prevalence of silicosis in sandstone mining, the average age of death ranges from 40-50. Mine workers in Rajasthan are eligible for compensation for occupational diseases as stated under the Workers Compensation Act of 1965. Working for the occupational rights of these communities is a challenge because the workers often are unaware that they are suffering from an occupational disease; and the rural areas where they live make it very difficult for outreach and timely medical care. Most of the workers do not have any access to healthcare. Nor do they have any medical insurance provided by the state, or through their employers, nor undergo any medical check-ups until their health situation is dire. Even when they do, the affected mineworkers do not get proper treatment as the local doctors are not specialized or familiar with occupational health diseases such as silicosis. In addition, though these silicosis victims are afflicted through their occupation, they are not covered under workers compensation as the owners of mines do not keep employee records, thereby denying them the identity of a worker. Thus, to the State too it is an invisible workforce outside the purview of any government welfare or compensation scheme.
In addition to silicosis, a large number of mine workers throughout Rajasthan are victims of other occupational disease like asbestosis. Similar to silicosis, asbestosis is contracted by mine workers through the inhalation of small, fibrous asbestos particles. The mining of asbestos in Rajasthan dates back to 1960. However, due to the obvious health risks presented by the extraction of asbestos and the soaring number of asbestosis victims, the mining of asbestos was made illegal in Rajasthan in 1986, with all asbestos mines closed by 2005. Since then MLPC has fought and succeeded to keep the ban on asbestos mining in Rajasthan in place despite efforts from various stakeholders in the government and mining industry to remove the ban. As in the case of silicosis victims, it has been a long struggle to get asbestosis victims the justice they deserve as they lack proper health care and the necessary employment identification to hold mine owners, or the State, liable for compensation for their illness.
MLPC started to focus and organize mine workers on occupational health from 2009 onwards, after the death of Padma at the age of 40. Padma, a tribal mine worker, used to work in the asbestos mines for 15 years in the Udaipurdistrict of Rajasthan. He was associated with MLPC and underwent training on occupational health and safety in Ahmedabad in 2008. The death of Padma after just three months of attending the training in February 2009 was a turning point for MLPC. Inquiry into his death revealed, only as a suspicion, though, that asbestosis could have been the cause. MLPC immediately organized a medical diagnostic camp for the workers for the first time in the state and three cases of asbestosis were diagnosed. It was around the same time that MLPC became part of the ANROAV/Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India (OEHNI) to further the cause of occupational health.
Participation of Victims at ANROAV Conference 2010
The issue of occupational health and hazards in the Rajasthan mining industry garnered international attention in October 2010 as two occupational health victims and former mine workers, Ruplal and Ramchandra, participated in the ANROAV conference in Bandung, Indonesia. Ruplal and Ramchandra hail from a distant village in Rajasthan. At a personal level, this visit was one of many firsts for them: first visit outside the state of Rajasthan; first experience of travelling on an aeroplane; and first experience of wearing western clothes and shoes. The international exposure was an eye-opener for them. They realized that occupational health hazard is not unique to their situation but is an international phenomenon. Their expectation increased since they felt that an international lobby could be formed to pressurize individual governments to take cognizance of occupational health hazards. The participation in the ANROAV conference has not only motivated Ruplal and Ramchandra but the thousands of other victims in the villages with whom they shared their experiences. Their participation in ANROEV and hearing international cases where victims were able to receive fair compensation for their occupational diseases gave these two victims the courage and conviction to fight for their due compensation, and to bring the struggle of the Rajasthan mine worker to a wider audience.
National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Widows
In July 2010, MLPC took up the case of a group of widows of silicosis victims to help them claim their due compensation from the Government of Rajasthan. Eventually, the NHRC recommended that the district administrator pay compensation to the 22 widows. The NHRC also recommended interim relief, treatment and rehabilitation to 44 mine workers that were then suffering from silicosis. To complement these recommendations, we also began extensive campaigning in August 2010 to include health examinations at K.N.ChestHospitalfor those 44 workers. The urgency of this matter is not overstated, as five workers have died in the time period while waiting for their necessary medical tests and interim relief.
Dharna (nonviolent protest) in Jodhpur Photo: MLPC
The Labour Department of Rajasthan finally recognized the 22 widows and brought their case to the Chief Minister (the highest political power in the State who controls the bureaucracy), who established a committee to especially look into their case. MLPC was determined not to let this matter rest and issued another memorandum to the Chief Minister, as well as met in person with the Principal Secretary (the bureaucrat). To add further pressure, the 22 widows conducted a dharna (non-violent protest) in Jodhpur. In protest against the injustices suffered by the widows and the lack of government action on this issue, MLPC and the widows went on a hunger strike together, demanding their due compensation.
This campaign for the widows which began in July 2010 culminated in recognition by the Chief Minister himself, after months of advocacy. On 27 September, the Chief Minister ordered interim relief to the 22 widows of the silicosis victims. Cheques were delivered on 19 October to 18 of the 22 widows. On 18 November, a press conference was held recognizing our success in gaining relief amount for the 18 widows, but we felt that our struggle was not over until all 22 widows received their due compensation. On 27 December, we held a final dharna, demanding cheques for the remaining four widows. Our voices were heard and the final four cheques were issued the following day on 28 December 2010.
MLPC’s Struggle to Mobilize and Empower Victims
As with any effort of organizing, mobilizing the community of mine workers and motivating them to fight their case has been an uphill task. Even today, we have not been able to file any individual case against the system in spite of providing full legal support. People are willing to fight them collectively, but not to make mine owners or the powerful state an enemy as individuals. Given their vulnerability and the enormous effort that goes in their day-to-day existence, we do understand their insistence on collective bargaining. Through our cooperatives we already have an existing base of 11,340 members and another 250 members through the SHGs. Often it has been a dominoes effect, where one member who was convinced about the work that MLPC was doing, went out to garner more support. For instance, Suji Devi was a widow of a mine worker. MLPC got to know that a mining lease was operating under the name of her deceased husband by an outsider. MLPC took up the issue on her behalf and after a long legal battle managed to secure Suji Devi’s entitlement on the (now abandoned) mine and the land. Until this case MLPC and Suji Devi were unknown to each other. However, since 2005 Suji Devi has become an integral part of MLPC and a leader who organizes and motivates the community. As an elderly woman, she mobilizes and leads the women in organized protests across the country.
MLPC’s work on occupational health and the rights of victims of silicosis began in July 2010 when meetings were held with the victims. In August 2010, MLPC met with over 250 victims of silicosis to hear their cases and determine a strategy for improved health services and compensation for victims. From these initial meetings it was evident that the number of workers suffering from silicosis was large in scale and that a massive outreach campaign would be needed to contact these victims. MLPC has since organized legal camps for the victims of silicosis where legal experts are able to consult with them to determine what rights are afforded to them by the constitution, and what legal action should be taken.
Our outreach started by seeking out-patients admitted to the K.N.ChestHospitalin Jodhpursince 2005. In October 2010, a campaign to identify and communicate with the 959 patients admitted to the hospital began by delivering postcards to all victims informing them of their rights to compensation and the role of MLPC in their struggle. Our education and outreach campaign also includes the publication of a booklet raising awareness on the prevalence of silicosis among the miners of Rajasthan. MLPC has continued the outreach campaign through different media, by airing local radio advertisements citing the work in the case of silicosis victims and urging anyone diagnosed at K.N.ChestHospitalto contact MLPC for further information. The print media also supported the work of MLPC and extensively covered it, spreading the message further.
At every point in the struggle, MLPC has involved the community. Reaching out to them through the union members (as earlier mentioned, MLPC has formed several mine workers’ unions, cooperatives and self -help groups), MLPC has discussed strategy and explained the importance of each and every action. MLPC along with the community held several meetings with and issued a series of memorandums to state government officials including the District Collector of Jodhpur and the Chief Head Medical Examiner. Through advocacy and constant communication with the government, MLPC has facilitated health camps for the silicosis victims. Our goal in this struggle has been to organize the victims into self-governing committees so that they empower themselves to take up this fight. The Core Committee has 13 members of mine workers where nine women are widows of silicosis victims. The committees have issued several memorandums to the District Collector of Jodhpur campaigning for their rights. As a result of their efforts, three welfare camps have been organized at different mining areas in hopes of linking the workers to government welfare schemes.
The government has also issued an order partnering with MLPC to identify and reach out to silicosis victims. As a result of these efforts, health camps were commissioned by the Chief Head Medical Officer beginning in October with bi-monthly check ups on the 7th and 20th of every month. These camps provide necessary health checkups for mine workers while simultaneously linking workers to government-sponsored welfare schemes previously established; as well as identify cases of silicosis in mine workers. During the months of October through December, there were 377 participants in the health camps. In this time, 43 widows were linked to the necessary pension scheme. 105 health checkups were provided and 244 surveys were completed for the identification of silicosis. The mining department has also taken steps towards preventative measures for miners by mandating mine owners to provide mine workers with masks and making it compulsory for workers to use masks during mining; and mandating mine owners to conduct periodic health check-ups of mine workers.
Emerging Leaders and the Present Struggle in Rajasthan
Presently, the silicosis victims in Rajasthan continue to struggle for recognition by the mining industry and those who have governance of it. MLPC is active in locating and organizing these victims in their struggle. Through the bi-monthly health camps we are able to locate potential silicosis cases and recommend a check-up at K.N.ChestHospital. Further, legal aid camps and training are held to assist the victims in their legal rights. In addition, MLPC is following up on the postcard campaign so that all 959 patients can be located and brought in for proper medical checkups and legal consultation. Many of the silicosis victims and their widows have now joined MLPC as volunteers to bring to light the unlawful conditions in the mines and the lack of responsibility on the part of the owners and government agencies to correct these conditions. Today the women are part of the mine workers union, they have their own self-help groups to explore alternate livelihood options (other than mining), they are part of the executive committee of MLPC, and they are the backbone of the mine workers’ struggle. They fearlessly march into the offices of government officials; they represent MLPC and their union at national conferences. Many of them are silicosis victims; some have children suffering from silicosis, while others are the widows of silicosis victims. They manage their hearth and then step out to garner other victims to join the struggle.
The union of mine workers is also growing since people today have realized the power of collective bargaining. The awareness on occupational health hazards and the right of mine workers have spread in distant hamlets across the state of Rajasthan. The issues are no longer restricted to occupational health, but also to issues like ethical mining, sustainable, environmentally friendly mining techniques, and reclamation of used mines; and participation in government decision-making processes are actively discussed in meetings organized by them and are addressed by them. Even within their occupational health struggles the scope has increased to asbestosis, deafness and eye care. The community of mine workers (across Rajasthan) meets every month to discuss issues and engage in strategic planning for the next move. We now have a cadre of leaders who have the courage to defy caste, class, gender barriers, and who have the strength and perseverance to take this work ahead.
1.Rajasthan Development Report,Planning Commission, 2006.
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