Silicosis Amongst the Quarry Workers of Lal Kuan

S.A. Azad

Many hills were flattened and spaces were carved out for the making of the capital city of New Delhi. Behind the grandeur of the city lie the heartbreaking stories of the people who have helped in building it.

Lal Kuan is a small village near the Mehrauli-Badarpur Road. It had been an active mining and quarrying area with a large number of stone crushers that have helped in building the infrastructure of Delhi. All the crashing and mining operations came to a halt in 1992 when the Supreme Court (in response to the PIL filed by lawyer Mr. M.C. Mehta) ordered the closure of all mechanical stone crushers established/operating in the Delhi area. This judgement though it reduced the pollution level of Delhi and enabled the building contractors to buy land at cheaper prices, its ambiguous position on the issue of occupational health hazards made the lives of the poor workers more vulnerable.

Today, Lal Kuan is the home of former mine workers and stone crushers ailing from silicosis. It is one of the oldest known occupational diseases caused by the inhalation of particles of silica, mostly from quartz in rocks, sand and similar substances. It is a progressive disease that belongs to a group of lung disorders called pneumoconiosis. At least, 3,000 villagers have died in the last 13 years from silicosis, tuberculosis and other breathing ailments in the area.

People's Rights and Social Research (Prasar), during its work on child education programmes in 1999 in the Lal Kuan area sensed the unprecedented occurrence of death and ill health among the residents of the area. Through subsequent research Prasar found that the people of the area were suffering from respiratory disease like silicosis, TB and silico-tuberculosis. In fact, tuberculosis is more frequent with the advanced form of silicosis and silicosis facilitates the development of the tuberculosis. From then on Prasar is working in the field of occupational health and fighting for compensation, medical benefits and rehabilitation for the silicosis victims at Lal Kuan. Prasar has the records of the death of 16 confirmed silicosis-affected persons of the Lal Kuan area from Government hospitals.

According to the villagers of the Lal Kuan area: ‘When mining and crushing activities were on, everything in Lal Kuan used to be covered by a thick layer of dust.’ Most of the victims are migrant workers who have come in the area in search of livelihood. Panni Ram, 60 has stayed in the area from the time his father had shifted here. Since childhood he has worked in the stone-crushing units. Both of his parents died of respiratory problems. Now, both he and his wife are suffering from silicosis. This is the story of all the households of Lal Kuan.  Most of the patients suffering from respiratory problems are prescribed medicines for tuberculosis by the government dispensary.  Most doctors lack awareness about silicosis and fail to diagnose the patients correctly. According to Prasar, ‘if patients do not improve after three to four courses of tuberculosis medicines, it means the affliction is something else. Silicosis is common in Lal Kuan, but no one acknowledges this as it would imply that compensation needs to be granted.’

Both the central and state Governments have been mute observers to the plight of the former mine-workers and stone-crushers. After repeated petitions to the concerned ministries Prasar has now resorted to filing Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court. Groups such as Prasar, Delhi Forum, Toxics Link, Popular Education and Action Centre (PEACE), Human Rights Law Network and the Centre for Education and Communication and some individuals have joined hands to form the Khaan Mazdoor Adhikaar Manch (Mineworkers’ Rights Forum). One of the first things this group did was to petition the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and demand compensation and rehabilitation from the Labour Ministry for those affected by silicosis, starting with the workers from Delhi. The NHRC had directed that a copy of the complaint be sent to the Secretaries of the Union Health, Labour and Industry Ministries, the Labour Commissioner, the Government of the National Capital Region of Delhi and the Director, Pollution Control Department, Delhi. These agencies were asked to look into the allegations and to submit their comments and an Action Taken Report within four weeks of receipt of the NHRC's letter.

The major break-through came in October 24, 2005 when the chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit, convened a meeting in the Delhi Secretariat to discuss the prevalence of silicosis in the Lal Kuan area. The meeting was attended by the Health Minister of the Government of Delhi, Food Minister, Principal Secretary (Health and Family Welfare), Secretary cum Director Social Welfare, Divisional Commissioner and Director, Health Services (DHS).   Mr. Satish Sinha of Toxics Link and Mr. Azad of Prasar along with some people of Lal Kuan were also present in the meeting. After talking to all the concerned persons and the victims, the Chief Minister has agreed to the following long-term demands of the people of the area:

It was decided in the meeting that Prasar would facilitate the implementation of these developmental activities in the area.

Previously, the mobile medical van used to come to a place which is about one kilometre from Lal Kuan and that  was restricted to simple treatment. After the meeting with the Chief Minister mobile medical vans are now visiting the area for four days a week – Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and unlike previously, it stays there for a full  two hours. Also, this medical van is for the treatment of occupational diseases and distributes free medicines for silicosis and other respiratory problems. The building of the community centre at Tejpur is almost complete. This community centre with 20 beds will contain the X-ray facility needed for the detection of silicosis and will also distribute free medicines. To meet the people's demand, one dispensary has also been opened in Lal Kuan recently. The survey of the medical team is also going on in the area. The government has decided to convert the schemes for the old age pension and widow's pension and give special pensions to the silicosis victims.

The mining and crushing units from Delhi have now shifted to Pali, Mohabatabad and Sirohi area in the adjoining state of Haryana. People from Lal Kuan, despite being aware of the hazards of mining and quarrying, still go the new mining areas and suffer as their predecessors in Lal Kuan as they do not possess any other work skills. Alternative livelihood options can save these poor people from the danger of tuberculosis and silicosis. A survey is being carried out in the area to list the choice of rehabilitation of the people. The options proposed by the people of the area are as follows:

The most significant effect of the meeting has been on the minds of the inhabitants of Lal Kuan. Now they feel that the government is noticing their problems. This feeling has driven away the hopelessness from them and has instead instilled a sense of empowerment among the people. It has given them a new zeal to look forward to life.

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