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How NGO campaign helped provide relief to workers from deadly silicosis disease

By Bharat Dogra* 

Victims of occupational diseases suffer all too frequently from neglect, resulting in extremely distressing conditions for them. Hence a recent campaign involving activists, judiciary and some state governments, particularly Rajasthan government, has appeared like a rare ray of hope. This campaign shows how significant benefits can reach workers suffering from silicosis, one of the most serious and common occupational diseases, once sincere efforts are made.
Directions by the Supreme Court supported by earlier efforts of the National Human Rights Commission have given new hope to tens of thousands of silicosis patients and other workers threatened by this occupational disease, and a lot of credit also goes to the activists as well as some sympathetic officials who worked with great commitment to take these benefits to workers toiling and living in remote places.
The Rajasthan government in particular should get the due credit for very helpful and well formulated policy. This has helped several workers or their families to get benefits ranging from Rs 3 lakh to Rs 5 lakh, apart from monthly pension of Rs 1,500 and some other benefits as well.
Earlier several social activists and public spirited lawyers made an important contribution to legal battles fought in several courts. SA Azad, a senior social and labour activist from PRASAR social organization, has been knocking on the doors of human rights commissions, courts and governments for almost two decades to take the message of long-suffering silicosis victims to them.
He says, “After initial years of neglect it is heartwarming to see that at last the judiciary is so active to help silicosis workers, but good decisions of the Supreme Court have to be supported by grassroots work so that workers or their families actually benefit from these decisions.”
Such an effort was recently visible in Rajasthan when in the course of a wider campaign for ensuring accountability or jawabdehi, social activists in several parts of Rajasthan contacted silicosis affected workers or their family members and helped them in obtaining long overdue compensation payment.
Their experience revealed that funds for this purpose were available in some districts but were not being utilized properly. This may well be true for some other areas as well. The fund utilization improved significantly with the intervention of activists belonging to organizations like the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathna (MKSS).
Senior activist Nikhil Dey who met several silicosis affected workers in the course of these efforts says, “In some cases workers looked like the living dead -- they were so weak and thin. I realized what a serious disease this is and how acute are the sufferings of a very large number of affected workers.”
The Atlas of Rural Health released by the Jan Swasthya Sahyog says that silicosis is not just a problem of larger industries and cities but it is also widely prevalent in many rural and semi-rural areas as well.
The major industries prone to silicosis are: stone quarries and crushers, quartz mining, foundries, sand blasting, ceramics, gem cutting and polishing, slate and pencil, construction, mining and glass manufacturing where workers are exposed to the risk of inhaling fine crystals of silica, leading to damage of lungs and fibrosis of tissues. A report of the Indian Council of Medical Research said that about thirty lakh or three million workers face a high risk of exposure to silica dust.
One area of intervention is to make available financial compensation to surviving workers, or families of workers who have died in the recent past. Medical rehabilitation of workers affected by silicosis to the extent possible is another area of intervention. 
However, even bigger possibilities of reduction of disease exist in taking adequate and carefully advised steps for the prevention of this disease in various industries and occupations. The National Human Rights Commission has said that the occupational hazard of silicosis is preventable if working conditions are properly regulated, proper warnings and information are provided and if proper protective gear and equipment are also available.
Recent directives of the Supreme Court have taken into account all these possibilities . In addition the Central Pollution Control Board prepared proposals for reducing the incidence of silicosis in the quartz grinding industry in Gujarat and elsewhere. Such steps need to be extended to other industries and occupations where there is significant risk of silicosis.
The high level of interest taken by the Supreme Court of India in providing relief and protection to silicosis workers and their families has opened up opportunities for affected workers and their families like never before.
However at the same time this reality cannot be ignored that those who remain to be reached and helped are many times more than those to whom help could be taken so far. Improvement of preventive aspects also leaves much to be desired. What remains to be done is much more than what has been done so far.
It is evident from past experience that even good court decisions cannot be effective in themselves and need strong grassroots support from activist groups and organizations of workers to ensure that these court orders are implemented in the right spirit. Hence social organizations and unions should give more attention to such occupational health issues of critical importance.
Any gains made on this silicosis campaign should be used to get better protection and relief in the context of other serious occupational diseases as well.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; recent books include 'A Day in 2071’, ‘Man over Machine' and ‘Planet in Peril'

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