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Rajasthan stone quarry workers "adversely impacted" by demonetization, GST, aadhaar: Azim Premji Univ paper

By Our Representative
Goods and Services Tax (GST), introduced by the Government of India in July 2017, was supposed to be a measure to simplify taxation by replacing by all indirect taxes with a single tax. But a new working paper, “Bijolia’s Harvest of Stone: Conditions of Work among Quarrying Labour in Rajasthan”, published by the Azim Premji University, has said, it has badly impacted stone mining business and, subsequently, the daily wage work in sandstone quarries.
Authored by scholar-journalist Anumeha Yadav, and based on her field research between October 2017 and January 2018, the paper quotes Heera Lal Meena, standing at a labour market site waiting to be picked up as a daily wager, “Every year, at this time, over a thousand of us gather at Shakkargarh chowk daily, This year, only 200 of us are coming here, and even of that, 100 return home empty-handed.”
If till recently, the number of workers employed in the quarrying job in and around Bijolia was 25,000, the scholar suggests, it may have shrunk to about 12,000.
Ram Lal Gujjar, another worker, says that there has been “continuous trouble” starting with demonetization, when the Government of India withdrew high currency notes, triggering a cash crunch in November 2016. “First, notebandi wiped out all work for over three-four months. After GST, the cost of building material went up and small traders were struggling. Nearly 75 percent sandstone ‘stocks’ have shut down.”
Ranjit Banjara, a local stone supplier, explains, “Earlier, anyone could source stone from the quarries. They would open a ‘stock’ of sandstone, and hire 10 to 15 kaariga (artisanal miners) and hamaal (freight workers). But local purchasers and traders of sandstone stocks that operated only in cash were wiped out in the months after notebandi and are struggling still.” Adds Gujjar, “When the small entrepreneur has no work, then who will employ daily wagers?”
The paper quotes workers complaining how the official push for a switch to use of bank accounts and aadhaar, a biometrics ID has disrupted even the access to social support of meagre pensions of Rs 500 a month and subsidised grains.
Says a worker, “For every small thing, they say ‘Go to the banks’, but there is no taawar (network) at the banks. At banks as well as ration shops, they ask us give our fingerprints on point of sale machines over and over. If there is even a small cut on our fingers, the authentication fails. Then, they deny us even grains.”
Worse, says the paper, despite a Rajasthan government notification of January 2018, which said that minimum wage of a “stone dresser”, a skilled job, should be Rs 283 a day, workers complained of poor wages. According to Subhash Mehr, though he is in the “highly skilled” category, at Rs 3 for each foot, by the evening, he had cut 80 feet stone, earning Rs 240, much less than the minimum wage.
The paper underlines, “Nearly half, or 53 percent workers, earned a minimum wage in the quarries, mostly men workers, though the workers say the minimum wage set between Rs 213 to Rs 271 a day itself was too low to manage basic expenses of rent, electricity, school fees etc.” It adds, “Of those who did not get a minimum wages, a majority, or 64 percent, were women.”
Rated one of the best in the world, Rajasthan’s sandstone is chiseled easily, and has acid and alkali resistant properties which allow it to weather saline sea winds easily. Thousands of tonnes of sandstone excavated and processed here makes its way through Gujarat’s Kandla port to the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates. Rajasthan contributes 10 percent of the world’s production of sandstone.
Yet, according to the scholar, “While it is not clear to what extent was demonetisation a cause for it, sandstone production slowed down in Bijolia in the past year. Production increased from 19,63,556 lakh tonnes in 2014-15 to 21,01,040 tonnes in 2015-16, and then it fell sharply by almost 50 percent to 11,42,989 tonnes, in 2016-17.”

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