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Haryana mining accidents reflect 'high-risk' hazards faced by India's quarry workers

By Bharat Dogra* 

Rockfalls on April 23 and 24 in Dadam mining area (Bhiwani district of Haryana) resulted in the death of two more workers. The fact that such an accident occurred in the same mining belt which had only recently witnessed a widely reported and terrible accident in which workers died and several were injured on January 1 this year would appear to indicate that the authorities have just not cared to learn from past mistakes.
According to initial reports although mining had been stopped in the precise area where the previous accident had taken place, the miners had tried to make up for this by excessive, unsafe mining in other parts of the mining belt, leading to this latest accident. It is extremely unfortunate that this happened despite so much attention being drawn to the widely prevalent risks in this mining belt, the result of years of reckless exploitation violating safety and environmental concerns.
On the morning of January 1, in Dadam area of Bhiwani district, Haryana, a huge portion of a hill being mined for its stone fell down with a very loud blast. While death of 5 workers was confirmed in this accident, serious concern has been expressed that a higher number of workers may have been buried under big stones. What could be seen immediately was that the stones which fell from a big height were so huge that several dumpers and machines were buried under this.
Senior leaders of this region had told media at that time that this area has been ravaged badly by a mining mafia, that it is dominated by goons who keep away outsiders so that safety violations in mines can be overlooked. They said that digging to excessive depths at several places could have destabilized the hills resulting in the big fall on January 1.
Published reports have held out the possibility that due to increase in price of construction materials there was a rush for meeting some big supply orders and so excessive blasting was used to get quick supplies, ignoring essential precautions.
Keeping in view this situation, there was need for introducing much wider and stricter safety provisions, but obviously this has been ignored, resulting in more fatal accidents. One hopes that at least this second tragedy will awaken the authorites to to need for wider and stricter safety steps.
The Dadam accidents also draw attention to some wider and persisting problems of stone quarrying in India. The most widespread mining and quarrying relates to supplying stone to construction sector. Since this is widely scattered in the country and is frequently in the informal sector, complete and reliable records are difficult to obtain but clearly it is very widespread and despite some legal restrictions placed from time to time, on the whole this has been expanding fast to meet the growing needs of the construction industry.
In many cases stone crushing units are set up close to these mining and quarrying works and so their combined impact must be considered. This work is often done in conditions which cause serious harm to the health of workers, to environment and quite often also the farming of nearby areas. All of this is avoidable to a large extent.
If this mining and quarrying had been developed keeping in view all important considerations of health, environment protection and welfare of workers as well as nearby villagers, then this sector could have become an important source of livelihood support . Unfortunately these considerations have been neglected resulting in such mining getting associated more with accentuation of water scarcity and ecological ruin, exploitation of workers and increasing problems for neighboring villagers.
One particular day I remember in this context is when I visited several villages located near stone quarrying sites in Mahoba district (Uttar Pradesh) and heard several farmers say that their farming is being ruined by the dust and water scarcity created by mining units and stone crushers. Several had been injured.
On the way back we passed a mining site and were asked to stop. We as well others commuting on this road were asked to stop as dynamite blast to facilitate mining was about to take place and stone pieces could reach here at a furious place even though the road was some distance away. We were asked to take cover and I stood behind hind a car.
Mining is controlled by local elites who have followed harmful practices and damaged sustainability of mines and quarries
After some time I could see some small stones flying around at some distance very furiously. If this had hit someone in an exposed part like head or face one shudders to think of the consequences. I kept thinking of the risk of injury faced by those who live in the shadow of such mining and all its dust as well.
Some of these problems have been documented also in the Human Development Report for Bundelkhand prepared under the Niti Ayog-UNDP Project on Human Development. This report has made several observations about the mining and quarrying sector ( mainly stone and sand) in Bundelkhand region.
First of all, it says that there are bonded labor type working conditions in these mines and quarries (or the attached crushers).
Secondly, working conditions are poor and several unsafe and hazardous practices are followed. Accidents often take place and compensation payment is generally not given. Lung diseases, silicosis and other diseases have been a big problem for workers and their families. There is no risk-cover, no protective gear, no medical facilities. The police is not supportive and does not register cases, this report says.
Thirdly, child labour exists in mines and child workers also toil in unsafe conditions.
Fourthly, mining is controlled by local elites who have followed harmful practices and damaged sustainability of mines and quarries. The entire work takes place in quasi-legal conditions with collusion of mafia and political bosses. There is hardly any adherence to environmental laws. Dynamite is frequently used and there is high risk from falling stones for nearby villagers.
These observations of the Human Development Report for Bundelkhand are of a serious nature and the authorities should take important steps for improving the situation with a sense of urgency. Earlier the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had sent a team to Patha area of Bundelkhand. This writer too was a member of this team.
The report prepared by this team had also mentioned several aspects of this system of exploitation and the existence of high-risk, hazardous conditions in mining and crushing units. Hence clearly there is enough evidence on the basis of which action against exploitative systems should be taken so that much-needed relief can come to the workers toiling in highly exploitative and hazardous conditions in the mines and quarries of Bundelkhand as well as other areas.
One important aspect is to extend special help to all workers or their families suffering from the dust-related disease of silicosis as orders of the Supreme Court have already resulted in provision for such help. Rajasthan has a good record in ensuring that this help reaches deserving workers. Some organizations in Rajasthan like the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) have done good work in taking these benefits to people.
Secondly, at least at some places experimental projects of stone mining which avoid health and environmental hazards and exploitation of workers should be launched. These should be in the form of small units of local workers including women who work on a small scale observing all precautions, avoiding use of heavy machines and dynamite. 
Lessons learnt in the course of such projects can be helpful in formulating proper policy.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Man Over Machine’ and ‘Planet in Peril’

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