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A wind of change in India village of widows

It took a police officer to help miners and their families breathe easy in India’s Rajasthan state, which has been losing its young men to silicosis

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Mass killer Silicosis has killed most of the men in Arampura Jatav Basti, lending it the name “village of widows”
Gulf News

Eight-year-old Naresh Bai lives with her 80-year-old grandmother, Lado, who is a widow. Her father, Ganpati Jatav, died in 2005 — the year she was born. Her mother, Sunita, left her when she was 1 and married Pappu of the same village. Sunita didn’t want to live a widow’s life.

But, she can’t avoid her fate for long.

In Arampura Jatav Basti, a small hamlet in Karauli district, 180 kilometres east of Jaipur in Indian state of Rajasthan, every house has a widow. The heads of most of the 105 families are women. Arampura Jatav Basti is often referred to as “village of widows”.

This is not the story of just one village. It is a curse on the women of the entire area — men work in sandstone mines for a living and die early due to silicosis, a deadly lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust. Sandstone quarries in the Dang area, the hilly region past the ravines of the Chambal river, are filled with stories of death of young mine workers.

The family of Harbhajan Jatav, for instance, had five sons. But today there are no men in the family — only five widows, three of them sisters. Vimla, the youngest, lost her husband only four months ago. Lalti, 70, lost her husband, Kalla, 17 years ago. She has been carrying the curse for a long time but there are many, such as Vimla, Paro and Meena, who have entered widowhood within the past year.

Somwati, 72, says: “Our men start working in mines at 10 years of age and become hollow by their prime. It’s common to see men dying in their 30s and 40s.” She coarsely forbids me to photograph her. “You will also print photos to say we are a village of widows but won’t do anything good for us.”

Somwati’s anger is understandable. In a village of 105 households, there are only eight below-poverty-line (BPL) families, according to government records.

Man Singh, 28, lost his father five months before his 12th grade examinations. The responsibility to look after the mother and three sisters fell on his young shoulders. Today, married with three children, Man Singh has no option but to work in the mines to earn a measly Rs23,000-25,000 (Dh1,347-Dh1,464) a year.

But Man Singh’s family isn’t a BPL family. “The BPL survey has been a sham,” he says with indignation. “All members in the family have been mentioned as illiterates in the survey form. But the fact is, I have studied up to 11th grade, and my sisters Laxmi, Mausam and Bhavna are in tenth, eighth and seventh grades, respectively.”

The picture is gloomy as silica dust continues to swallow lives in the sandstone mines of Karauli, especially in areas bordering Madhya Pradesh.

Things began to look up when, in May 2012, a doctor came to Karauli as the Superintendent of Police (SP). Dr Amandeep Singh Kapoor completed a degree from Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal, before joining the Indian Police Service (IPS) in 2007. It was while touring the dacoit-infested Dang that he learnt about the problems of poor mine workers. (The hapless men bore the dacoits’ wrath: nails were hammered into their palms for violation of dacoits’ diktat).

Dr Kapoor, who had worked on an Indian Council of Medical Research-John Hopkins community medicine project at Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education, Chandigarh, before donning the uniform, wanted to not only eliminate the dacoits but also do something for these men.

It was around this time that “Dang Vikas Sansthan” (DVS), a NGO, began a campaign to demand free treatment and rehabilitation for 73 identified patients of silicosis. These were the first silicosis patients in Karauli. Prior to this, the patients were treated for tuberculosis since there were no facilities in the district to diagnose the disease.

During a Family Livelihood Resource Centre (FLRC) programme in which DVS engaged with 340 “poorest of the poor” families in 18 villages of Karauli,the NGO found that there were many deaths due to suspected tuberculosis among mine workers. The NGO decided to find out the reason for deaths, since many of the dead had received TB treatment.

DVS’s secretary, Dr Vikas Bhardwaj, says: “We found out that the Nagpur-based National Institute of Miners’ Health (NIMH) had expertise in such cases. In February 2011, I made a presentation before NIMH director Dr P.K. Sishodiya, who said these could be cases of silicosis.”

That was the first time Dr Bhardwaj and his team heard the term silicosis. Later, Dr Sishodiya visited two mining sites in Karauli and met two victims. But, for scientific confirmation, NIMH needed samples and medical reports.

“We sent reports of 101 mine workers in November 2011 and the following month, NIMH sent us a report confirming silicosis in 73 patients,” Bhardwaj recalls. “We were alarmed, and decided to fight for these patients’ rights.”

The first step was to form a body of mine workers, called the “Khan Mazdoor Suraksha Sangthan” (Mine Workers’ Safety Organisation). The FLRC project had ended and the DVS needed its governing body’s mandate to fight the mine workers’ fight.

DVS wrote letters to all departments concerned, such as the medical and health department, and the department of mining, about these 73 cases. But this was not enough.

In August 2012, they sent a representation to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) demanding rehabilitation and compensation for these miners. “We said silicosis is not only a health issue, it’s also a human rights issue since it infringes the right to live with dignity for those affected by it and their families,” Dr Bhardwaj explains.

The 36-year-old IPS officer says DVS groundwork helped. While the DVS struggle was specific to the 73 patients, Dr Kapoor wanted to cover all mine workers who are exposed to silica dust. During the DVS campaign, five of these miners died, and in November 2012, the NGO made two specific demands — one, a compensation of Rs300,000 to five widows and Rs200,000 each to the patients; and two, free treatment to the remaining 68.

On the other hand, Dr Kapoor conceptualised “Project Khuli Saans”, a collective fight by district administration, district police and civil society, including DVS, against silicosis.

A pilot project covered ten most affected village panchayats and two industrial areas of Hindaun city and Karauli, focusing on preventive, remedial, rehabilitative and compensatory aspects of the killer disease.

Many people were sceptical about the role of the police in this fight against silicosis. “I was presenting a new concept,” says Dr Kapoor, “where the police, along with other stakeholders, had a role. I proposed panchayat-level safety committees, which would have, among others, beat constables and members of the Community Liaison Groups (CLGs). While the administration and civil society would handle the preventive, remedial and rehabilitative aspects, the cops would take penal action against labour contractors who violated safety norms.”

Things were moving fast. While Dr Kapoor’s document on Khuli Saans went from district collector to state’s chief secretary for approval, in March this year, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot handed out compensation — Rs100,000 cash and a fixed deposit of Rs200,000 each — to five widows.

In August this year, Dr Kapoor’s project, Khuli Saans, led to the formation of a district task force on silicosis, with him as its convenor. Former top cop and a member of Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission M.K. Devarajan formally launched the task force at a function held at, significantly, Arampura Jatav Basti, 20 kilometres from the district headquarters.

DVS campaign bore more results in September-October: the state government agreed to give Rs100,000 each to 63 silicosis patients (out of 73, 10 have died so far, and eight widows have received the Rs300,000 package), and to grant them BPL status, which would make them eligible for various social welfare schemes.

Meanwhile, DVS sent 314 fresh cases to NIMH in June; 149 of them have been diagnosed with silicosis.

In Rajasthan, mining activities take place in 23 districts; it is suspected that some of them have high prevalence of silicosis. In Karauli, famous for its red sandstone used in Delhi’s Red Fort, there are about 50,000 mine workers.

SP Dr Kapoor was transferred out of Karauli in September this year, but his efforts continue to provide “khuli saans” (fresh air) to mine workers.

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