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Madhya Pradesh government indifference towards silicosis victims prompt workers to launch a wave of protests

Patthar Khan Mazdoor Sangh demonstration led by Yousuf Baig
By Ashok Shrimali*
Workers in Panna district of Madhya Pradesh are up in arms against the state government indifference towards silicosis, the deadly disease rampant in sandstone mining. Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India (OEHNI) coordinator Mohit Gupta in a statement has said this has happened because workers in these mines are suffering from silicosis for long, “yet, the owners have failed to provide any facilities or protective equipments to them, as is common in the country.” Worse, “they have not even been issued any ID cards, and they have no knowledge either about the name of the owner or the mine for which they are working for.”
An OEHNI medical camp for these workers in 2011 found that 39 out of 45 workers who came for diagnosis suffered from silicosis. “This list of workers was given to the district administration for remedial action, but nothing happened. A case was also filed against the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for these workers. In 2012, again, the diagnosed 84 workers as suffering from silicosis. Of these, six victims have so far died, and they have received no compensation of any kind. This has happened despite the fact that three of them were confirmed by the government doctors also as silicosis victims”, Gupta said.
All this took shape against the backdrop of the fact that the NHRC in its order dated October 15, 2012, asked the Madhya Pradesh government’s health secretary to work out ways to provide compensation to the victims, even as start treating those who suffer from silicosis. The NHRC acted on the on the basis of a complaint, which said that 82 patients of silicosis have been identified in the tribal areas of Panna District. The complaint further said, there were around 75,000 tribals working in the stone quarries in the area. 
Despite the order, significantly, even today, Gupta said, the district hospital “does not have any qualified doctor to diagnose the disease; the doctors keep diagnosing these workers as suffering from tuberculosis (TB). After repeated pressure, 17 of these workers were taken to another district medical college and after a CT scan they were confirmed to be suffering from silicosis. There has been no effort from the state to identify other workers who might be suffering.”
The only list so far that exists providing some indication of the disease is the one prepared by the OEHNI, Gupta claimed, adding, “There are no efforts to improve the situation on the ground, no alternative engineering methods have been introduced for the workers to work in a healthier atmosphere, nor have the workers been provided with any safety equipment in the mines. Repeated promises made by one and all have been broken.”
Demonstrators offering to be court arrested
The result of all has been an agitation early on last Monday, in which about 1,000 people, under the banner of Patthar Khan Mazdoor Sangh and led by Yousuf Baig, marched up to the district collector’s office and demanded that he should meet them personally to hand over a memorandum addressed to the chief minister. “The indifference of the state administration was there for all to see. The district collected refused to come down and meet the protesters, though agreeing to meet a representation in his office, which was rejected”, Gupta said.
Worse, the district collected kept sending deputies to take the memorandum. After about a couple of hours, the police arrested about 130 of these workers, who included several senior anti-mines activists from Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, and took them to a makeshift jail. The local MLA who came out in support of the agitation also got himself arrested along with others.
Protests did not stop. Another larger group of forest dwellers under the leadership of Aadiwasi Mahasangh (comprising of more than 5,000 villagers) tried to meet the collector on Wednesday. This group had agreed to raise the demands of the silicosis victims along with their own. “But the district collector left his office on a tour in the morning, perhaps knowing well that another group of protesters had come down to represent to him”, Gupta said.
Gupta regrets, the memorandum, addressed to the MP chief minister “has still not been accepted”, though files have started moving in Bhopal to look into the plight of the silicosis victims. “If things do not change, the workers plan to sit on hunger strike starting next week”, he adds.
Meanwhile, a letter written by addressed to the MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Yousuf Baig said that though the government has recognized the disease as deadly in the state assembly, no schemes have yet been worked out to address the workers’ plight. The letter says that the Rajasthan government provides a compensation of Rs 3 lakh to the widows of the workers who died because of silicosis. Similarly, Gujarat has announced Rs 1 lakh insurance against anyone who dies of silicosis.
“However, nothing of the sort exists in Madhya Pradesh”, the letter says, asking him to intervene in the matter, adding, there should be a regular checkup by competent occupational health physicians of all the workers working in sand stone mining industry in the state. At the same time, all workers should be registered and be provided with the benefits given to any regular workers, including safety equipment.
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*Senior Gujarat-based activist

Comments

Jagdish Patel said…
IN Rajasthan where Govt is led by Cogress has enforced recommendation by NHRC - backed by Supreme Court interim order in PIL 110/2006- to pay Rs.3 lakh to the kin of workers dying of Silicosis. BJP Govts in Rajasthan,Gujarat and Chhattisgarh do not follow NHRC recommendation. It is clear BJP is not looking at needs of poor

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