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Gujarat agate worker, who fought against bondage, died of silicosis, won compensation

Raju Parmar
By Jagdish Patel*
This is about an agate worker of Khambhat in Central Gujarat. Born in a Vankar family, Raju Parmar first visited our weekly OPD clinic in Shakarpur on March 4, 2009. Aged 45 then, he was assigned OPD No 199/03/2009. He was referred to the Cardiac Care Centre, Khambhat, to get chest X-ray free of charge. Accordingly, he got it done and submitted his report. At that time he was working in an agate crushing unit of one Kishan Bhil.
Based on clinical examination, occupational history and the X-ray, the TB and chest department of the Sri Krishna Hospital, Karamsad, issued the certificate of diagnosis on January 13, 2010. He was diagnosed of suffering from silicosis, a fatal occupational disease.
We counselled Raju that if he continued with this occupation, he would further damage his already scarred lungs. He gave serious thought to the suggestion and stopped working in the agate unit.
After seven or eight months, he needed some money. He went to his friend, Shaid, and shared his need. Shaid offered him to work at his workshop to earn as much he needed. Raju started working at the workshop.
One day, an ex-worker colleague spotted Raju returning from Shaid's workshop. He is said ro have reported this to Kishan, who got angry: How dare Raju work in a workshop owned by someone else when Raju owed him Rs 35,000? Kishan was notorious; it is said, he would thrash his workers. He sent a message to Raju to report to him.
Frightened, Raju rushed back to his home but did oblige Kishan. The next day morning Kishan visited Raju’s house, but again Raju wasn't there. Kishan, we were told, shouted and abused Raju’s mother and threatened her that if Raju did not turn up at his workshop, Raju would have to face consequences. Kishan then visited Shaid, who too was abused for sheltering Raju.
Raju came to us and told us what had happened. We consoled him and assured him that law of the land would protect him. We advised him to remain firm and keep faith in legal provisions. He agreed. We warned him of probable obstacles. When we realised he was firm, we decided to support him.
We helped Raju with an application to the district collector, Anand, to free him of the alleged bondage of Kishan under the provisions of the Bonded Labour Act. In his application dated May 3, 2010 he wrote to the district collector that he was being prevented to work of his free will, as guaranteed by the Constitution, by Kishan, and he was left with no option but to work for this person against his free will, amounting to forced labour. He pleaded to free him of the debt bondage.
Few days later he was invited by the local police. The police station took his statement. His employer Kishan Bhil was also summoned, and his statement was also recorded on June 22, 2010. Later, police told Raju that he was free to work at his will, and if he had any problem, he could contact the police.
Raju reported to us. We advised him to visit the police station and seek written assurance that he was free of bondage now. Accordingly, he went to the police station and demanded certificate to be issued under the Act. The police refused. He also demanded a copy of the statement of his ex-employer. He was refused even that.
We advised him to file an RTI plea with the district collector's office to know the action they might have taken in response to his May 3, 2010 application. It was at this point that the police station invited him and gave him a certified copy of the statement of his employer.
We understood the difficult period Raju was passing through. We offered him a small monthly amount to support him in his struggle. It was a big relief to him, and that helped strengthen his resolve further.
We were now equipped with the important document proving employer-employee relationship between Kishan Bhil and Raju Parmar. We did not press for official reply of the RTI Raju had filed. Instead, we decided to file compensation claim for silicosis under the Employees' Compensation (EC) Act.
We hired a well-known lawyer, PG Mavlankar, for this. Mavlankar served notice to Kishan Bhil under the EC Act on January 6, 2011. When there was no reply, the claim was filed before the Compensation Commissioner, Anand (Labour Court, Anand), which registered the case as non-fatal on January 1, 2011.
Raju’s father was an agate grinder. He died in 2002. Raju had studied up to the 5th standard in Shakarpur primary school and was a school push-out. He started working as child labour at the Japan Boot House in Khambhat city for Rs 300 per month. After working there for two years, he joined a workshop run by one Punam Parmar to learn agate grinding.
Kishan Bhil, owner of agate unit
Thereafter, on learning the art, he switched over and joined one Mahendra Vaghela. After working for some time, he needed Rs 1,000, which he demanded from Vaghela. Vaghela was unable to pay, so he requested Kishan Bhil to pay the amount to Raju.
Kishan agreed on the condition that Raju should work at his workshop. Raju knew Kishan's ways, but since he was in dire need of money, he agreed. He joined Kishan's unit in around 1991-92. He was aware that he would get a lesser rate per piece for shaping the stones as Kishan's workshop for not levying any interest on the advance paid to him.
Raju had heard stories that, as and when a worker wouldn't turn up to work, Kishan would go to his house and fetch him tying him with a rope. He worked for him continuously for 19 years.
In November 2011, Raju's health deteriorated, and he was admitted in CHC, Khambhat.
When I visited him in the hospital on November 7, I was shocked to see two patients on one cot. I immediately informed my friend and local reporter Shailesh Rathod, who sent in his photographer. A story was published in the Gujarati daily "Divya Bhaskar".
Raju succumbed on December 5, 2011. His brother informed me over phone. I advised them to get post-mortem done but the family did not agree. We then applied to add his mother Shantaben as claimant, as Raju’s legal heir. Raju and his brother Prakash were not married. In Khambhat, male agate workers find it difficult to get bride, as they are known to lead a shorter life span.
Shantaben’s application was moved on December 2, 2011. Following a hearing, the court allowed the application. Her statement was recorded in the court on August 3, 2013, and she was cross examined on September 21, 2013 and October 5, 2013.
Shantaben, too, was an agate worker. She had also attended our OPD. She was registered as OPD No 109/12/2007. She was diagnosed positive for silicosis and was issued a certificate by the hospital on January 13, 2010. She expired on July 7, 2014 of silicosis.
We then moved an application in the court to add two of Raju's brothers as heirs. Our claim was contested by the opponent. Following arguments, the court ordered in favour of the claimant and the application was allowed. Of the two – Prakash and Ajit – Prakash was an agate worker and he was registered as 69/10/2007 at our clinic. He too was certified positive for silicosis.
During the course of the hearing, Prakash got sick. When he came for hearing on August 8, 2014, he was not able to walk even a few steps. We arranged for rickshaw all the way from Khambhat to Anand for him. On September 7, he too succumbed -- just two months after his mother’s death.
In filing the claim, Dr Rajiv Palival cooperated. He had signed the certificate and hence he was an important witness. He was examined and cross examined in the court on October 19, 2012. The respondent examined one witness from his side, who said that Raju was also working at home, and around his home there were other workshops, too, which generated dust. So, it was that dust which was responsible for Raju’s illness and not Kishan’s workshop. They could not present any documentary evidence.
Thereafter, Ajit appeared to lose interest, and we too were tired. We decided to withdraw and asked Ajit to arrange for a lawyer or negotiate with Mavlankar. He did not take any action. Suddenly, we heard that the court had decided on the evidence put before the court. On September 30, 2019, the court passed its order in favour of the claimant.
This was unprecedented. This was for the first time ever that an agate worker, who had filed claim for compensation for occupational disease, had won. This was also historic.
The claimant Raju had stated his monthly average wage to be Rs 3,250. It was pleaded before the court to consider the disablement to be 100% based on a case law. The Gujarat High Court had decided in the Babubhai vs ESIC to consider 100% disablement in the case of silicosis. Considering his age to be 35, the compensation claimed was Rs 3,84,267.
The claim further sought 50% as fine, as after serving the notice, no action was taken by the employer, and 12% as interest. Another Rs 10,000 was claimed for other expenses. The court ordered for Rs 3,84,267 as compensation, Rs 192,133 towards fine and Rs 5,000 towards expenses. It ordered to deposit the amount within one month in the court.
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*With People's Training and Reseach Centre (PTRC), Vadodara. Contact: jagdish.jb@gmail.com

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