“Tumhare to maje hai, sarkar se 2 lakh mil gaya, pension bhi mil rahi hai” said the upper caste doctor to silicosis patient Raju who went to him for a routine check-up. Recounting the same, Raju angrily told me, “All these people, including doctors, compounders, and nurses despise us because we are getting ex gratia amount from the state government’s pneumoconiosis policy. They humiliate us for our ex gratia money and pension as if it was our choice to suffer from silicosis”.
Silicosis, a life-threatening respiratory disease is a curse to mine workers in Rajasthan who have no other option of livelihood other than mining. It is already declared an epidemic in the state of Rajasthan. Pnemonocosis policy 2019 ensures compensation to the silicosis patient. While it also makes provision for the prevention of silicosis, nothing is happening on that front.
Every year, thousands of mineworkers get affected by silicosis and mine owners just replace them with able-bodied workers. The feudal and casteist societal structures of Rajasthan readily manifest in the mining industry. Mines are state-owned property and they give leases to private players for the operation of mines. High prices of leases directly ensure the reservation of mine leases to upper caste communities with generational economic capital. Both these spaces (state and mine leases) are occupied by upper caste people in Rajasthan while mine workers belong to the lower strata of the society that does not have landholdings and occupations other than mining.
Mining is universally established as a hazardous occupation but state and mine leaseholders have turned their heads away from the occupational health hazards and violation of the labor rights of mine workers, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of mine workers, bonded labor, child labor, sexual exploitation, lesser wage, etc.
The DGMS (Directorate General Of Mines Safety) Ministry of Labour and Employment,Government of India, which is the central government authority to ensure occupational health safety of mine workers, does not have the required data on the mine workers due to the lack of coordination between them and DMG (Department of Mines and Geology), Rajasthan.
Mining is a state subject and workers’ safety is a central government subject under DGMS and this has lead to a lack of coordination and passing of the buck which in turn proves to be harmful for the occupational health rights of mineworkers. The civil societies and labour unions in Rajasthan are mainly working for the social security of mine workers while hundreds of mine workers are dying because of the irresponsible mining activities undertaken by the owners in cahoots with the state government.
The pneumoconiosis policy 2019 is the result of the long struggle of mine workers and part of a solution that ensures the ex gratia amount and pension schemes reaches the silicosis affected communities. Apart from it, there are state and central acts in place. Many orders were notified by the bureaucratic system and international treaties were signed to ensure the labor rights of mine workers but negligible change has happened.
The gaps in the bureaucratic system have roots in the entrenched caste system and their ignorance of the labour rights violation is their institutionalized way of asserting their caste dominance. Upper caste bureaucracy has the responsibility as well as the required power to ensure the implementation of silicosis policy which not only involves monetary relief to silicosis patients and their family, but also guarantees the prevention of deadly disease of silicosis.
During my time doing advocacy work in Rajasthan, I have witnessed majority of private leaseholders and government bureaucrats work together by not adhering to and enforcing strict orders of law compliance respectively. The majority of the upper caste population of India has always been against affirmative action for marginalized communities belonging to SC/ST/OBC be it a reservation policy, social security schemes while they hold generations of social and economic capital.
As Raju rightly said, “Hamko silicosis ka paisa milta hai wo in logo ko kafi akharta hai ye log nahi chahate ki hame silicosis ka 3 lakh rupaya mile par ye log mahine ka lakh rupaya kamate hai uska kya?”
Meanwhile, getting Rs. 3 lakhs ex gratia amount is also not easy especially for the silicosis patients who has applied offline. Before 2019, there was no online process for compensation and many of people who applied then are yet to get their ex gratia amount due to procedural and technical errors. Early detection of the silicosis is still a major issue and it is one of the reason for high rate of rejection (101674) of registered cases.
During a review meeting of the pnemonocosis policy 2019 with civil societies in October 2020, we spoke to the then principal secretary of Social Welfare, Government of Rajasthan, discussing the different ways through which the government can support the treatment of silicosis patients. She said, “In logo ko 3 lakh to dete hai ham, wo kis liye dete hai, ilaj karwane ke liye hi dete hai. Lekin ye log us paiso se ghar bana lete hai, bachcho ki shadi kar lete, to sarkar ilaj pe aur paisa kyo kharch kare,” (“We give the workers three lakhs for getting treated for silicosis. But instead, they use the money to make houses and get their children married. Then why should the government spend more money on treatment?”)
This shows the sense of entitlement bureaucrats have, which is rooted in a charity approach. The above sentence is factually incorrect and insensitive, to say the least. The reality is that the silicosis patients are in huge debt due to expensive treatment in private hospitals. Though silicosis policy talks about free treatment for silicosis patients, government hospitals are not equipped enough to provide quality treatment. This tremendous debt on a family affected by is also one of the reasons for bonded labor. The argument of incompetent bureaucracy also doesn’t stand as the mining industry is earning thousands of crores every year which is directly benefiting the state and the mine leaseholders.