Shantaben Parmar reminds her daughter-in-law it was time to report for her shift at the ceramic kiln. Obligingly, the 38-year-old daughter-in-law, who was widowed in August, mops the floor, has lunch and leaves for work at a ceramic factory on the outskirts of Thangadh, a town in Surendranagar district and known as the hub of sanitaryware industry. While working in one such ceramic factory, her husband Haresh Parmar had developed silicosis, an incurable lung disease which eventually lead to his death.
Silicosis killed two ceramic workers in the past two months, Haresh being one of them. Activists claim it was the fourth silicosis death in Surendranagar this year and the eighth since 2016. Three others died of the same in Morbi over the past three years. Under-reporting of workers on rolls by the factories have denied the victims benefits of insurance cover by the Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC), say activists working with those affected. Lack of awareness on preventive measures is leading to deaths, they add.
Shantaben’s son Haresh, 46, was riding pillion on his younger brother Mahesh’s motorbike, to the community health centre (CHC) in Thangadh on August 23 when he vomitted blood and fell unconscious. He was declared dead on arrival at the health centre.
The death ended Haresh’s struggle with silicosis, an occupational disease he was diagnosed with in 2014. His medical papers record that he developed silicosis due to exposure to silica dust while working in ceramic factories.
Haresh, who has left behind wife and sons — Deepak (18) and Umesh (12), was working as a glazer since 2000 and had worked at Uday Pottery even four days before his death. “As his health deteriorated, he stopped doing glazing work and instead took up painting of ceramic items,” says Haresh’s widow who has studied till Class VIII.
Glazing is the process of spraying silica-based material like fritt and other chemicals on sanitaryware item to give it a lustrous surface. Spray dyeing of these chemical compound is mostly done manually because of irregular shapes of the sanitaryware products. However, glazing on tiles is mostly a mechanical process.
Silicosis is the result of accumulation of silica dust in the lungs. Workers in quarries and mines, spray dyeing units of ceramic factories and foundries where sandblasting is used are at high risk of developing this disease, says Jagdish Patel, director of Peoples’ Training and Research Centre, a Vadodara-based NGO working on industrial safety and occupational health.
The disease affects the functioning of lungs, often leads to infections like tuberculosis (TB) and eventually causes death. Silicosis is preventable yet incurable. Patel, whose NGO has been fighting cases of silicosis-affected workers in Panchmahal, Khambhat and Jambusar, started working in Saurashtra recently.
He says they have identified at least 25 ceramic workers in Surendranagar and three in Morbi who are still battling silicosis. In Surendranagar, most of the deaths due to silicosis happened in Thangadh taluka. A majority of the silicosis patients in the district are concentrated in the ceramic town that has around 200 sanitaryware factories.
“Twelve workers have died due to the disease in recent years. Of the total 40 cases, 34 were from Thangadh, while six were reported from Morbi,” says Patel.
Located in Amrapar area of Thangadh, Uday Pottery where Haresh worked for years, manufactures ceramic sanitaryware items, has disowned him. When he was diagnosed with silicosis, he got no benefits from the factory, his family members complain. Nor was he getting any social security benefits from the Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) as he was not a subscriber to ESI Scheme. His family also did not get any kind of compensation after his death.
Sources say dozens of people work at Uday Pottery. However, factory owners say less than 10 persons are employed by them and, therefore, the ESI Act is not applicable to them. “No person named Haresh Parmar was working here. Neither are we aware of any person working here having died recently,” Ronak Khatri, one of the partners of Uday Pottery said when The Indian Express asked about Haresh’s death.
When asked about safety measures for workers in Uday Pottery, Khatri said that local federation of ceramic units would be in a better position to respond.
Less than three weeks after Haresh’s death, his wife took up the same work of applying paint to ceramic products at another factory in the town. “I am not doing glazing work that my husband used to do. However, I am aware there is some risk in this work also. But what other work is available in Thangadh? I want to give decent education to my children. Now that my husband is not around and the source of income for my family has dried up, I have to work,” the mother of two says, requesting anonymity for fear of losing her job.
Mahendra Kushal (49), who had been working in ceramic factories in Thangadh for the past 10 years, was diagnosed with silicosis in July this year at the civil hospital and died on September 28.
Morbi and Thangadh is the largest ceramic cluster of India which produces around 90 per cent of ceramic products of the country. Thangadh is the cluster of sanitaryware product manufacturing. There are around 200 ceramic units producing sanitaryware items in Thangadh taluka. Panchal Ceramic Association Vikas Trust (PCAVT), a chamber of ceramic factories in Thangadh says that around 10,000 people work in these factories, but denies prevalence of silicosis.
Suresh Sompura, managing trustee of PCAVT, says, “Ceramic industry established in Thangadh in 1915 is among the oldest ceramic clusters in India. One silicosis case came to light two years ago. Many labourers here have the habit of consuming alcohol and don’t give priority to nutrition. Silicosis cases are reported in big numbers from Godhra…”
Sompura also alleged that some workers were trying to get themselves certified as silicosis patients “to get Rs 6,000 monthly pension”. According to him, “Glazing booths in factories now have exhaust fans that fans suck up the harmful dust. These fans have been there at least for 15 years. Glazers also mask their face with cloth while working.” Workers contend that not every glazing booth in factories in Thangadh have exhaust fans.
Sompura concedes that of the 10,000 people working in Thangadh, only about 2,500 have ESI cover because “not all the factories fall in the area that comes under the ESI Act. Only Thangadh and Amrapar are covered under it”, he says.
In Morbi, silicosis is not an issue, claims Kirit Patel, president of Morbi Sanitaryware Association, an organisation of around 80 sanitaryware factories in that district where around 16,000 workers work.
“We use chemicals in liquid forms for spray dyeing and therefore dusting is not as high as, say, in cement factories. Whatever dusting is generated during spray dyeing is directed towards a chamber through exhaust fans. Plus, factory owners get medical screening of their employees done at every six months and silicosis has not emerged as a disease among them. However, ESI coverage is low as factories only near Morbi town are covered under ESI Act. In fact, we are protesting against the ESI Act as ESI Corporation is not providing any facilities though they are collecting contribution. They don’t have any hospital in Morbi,” Kirit Patel adds.
Deepak Kumar Chourasia, deputy director at ESIC regional office in Ahmedabad says no silicosis case has been referred to them from among subscribers in Thangadh and Morbi. “No silicosis case has been brought to our notice from Thangadh or Morbi. But we are ready to help people. They can contact our branch office in Wankaner or to me,” he says.
Chourasia adds ESIC inspectors are no longer authorised to visit factories located in areas not notified under ESI Act. “The government has restrained inspectors from surveying factories. Regularly survey is not allowed of late,” he adds.
Officers of labour and employment department of state government also plead ignorance about silicosis cases. “I am not aware if 34 cases of silicosis have been reported form Thangadh. Two-three cases were reported earlier. We are directing factory owners to do medical check up of their workers regularly. They had conducted medical camps two-and-a-half-years ago. But they are not doing it regularly. As a safety measure, we are suggesting factory owners to install common ducting and scrubbing system (to reduce air pollution inside factories),” says BK Patel, assistant director of Industrial Safety and Health in Surendranagar.
Doctors at the Thangadh CHC confirm the prevalence of silicosis among ceramic factory workers. “At present, around 10 silicosis patients are under treatment. In the past 10 months, four to five patients have died. Ceramic workers are a high-risk group but we do not have proper facilities to diagnose silicosis. Therefore, we refer suspected cases to Surendranagar or Rajkot. Since the disease is incurable, we give symptomatic treatment to patients,” says Dr Mahesh Pansura, medical officer of Morthala primary health centre, who is on deputation at the Thangadh CHC.
Since ESIC does not have a hospital of its own in Thangadh, it has tied up with state government and accordingly the CHC provides medical facilities to ceramic workers.
While ceramic factories pay comparatively better wages, in the range of Rs 250 – 500 per day to labourers, most of the labourers are on contract and do not have any social security or wages security net.
Bharat Parmar (47), a resident of Mahatma Gandhi Society in Ambedkarnagar in Thangadh started working as a glazer at a factory when he was 20 years old but had to stop working by the time he turned 36 as he would tire out and began to detest his job.
Doctors first told him he had tuberculosis and began medication, which worsened his condition. “I didn’t know about silicosis before PTRC told me about it. I used to tie a handkerchief around my face while working in the spray dyeing booth but had little idea that this work would lead to such a disease one day,” says Bharat, father of four daughters and a son.
Bharat’s elderly father Mohan, who was also a ceramic factory worker, supports the family of nine by selling snacks on a handcart. Bharat’s wife repairs old garments to supplement the family income while other relatives also help financially.
Making ends meet
In Mahendranagar area on the outskirts of Morbi town, Bipin Upadhyay’s widow Kalpana is wary of strangers suspecting them to be money lenders knocking on her doors for recovery of loans. Bipin migrated to Morbi from a village in Navsari district in south Gujarat in 2006-07. The couple worked in a firebricks factory. His medical papers show that Bipin was diagnosed with silicosis in 2014. He died in December 2016 at 32 years, leaving behind wife, daughter Ravina and son Rahul — then 15 and 12 respectively.
“The factory owner didn’t help us financially after my husband fell ill though he used to come to our home to enquire about his health,” says Kalpana.
She stayed back in Morbi for the education of her children. Raveena is pursuing a degree in commerce while Rahul is in Class X. The mother does sewing and repairs old garments while Raveena tutors a few children of the locality for a fee. She could not go back to the factory as she had to look after the children.
“Once they are grown up and have completed their studies, I shall persuade them to return to our native village,” says Kalpana, asking not to mention name of factory where she and her husband used to work, for fear of backlash from its owner.
Similar to the cases of Thangadh, Upadhyay was also not a permanent employee of the bricks factory and, therefore, didn’t get any compensation or allowance for medical treatment from ESIC or any other labour welfare scheme.
In Mahendranagar, an emaciated Ravji Dabhi and his family are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that he has been diagnosed with silicosis this May. He quit working as quality-checker in a sanitaryware manufacturing unit of a known ceramic group of Morbi around 12 months ago following respiratory problems.
“The doctor at Shyam Hospital in Morbi town advised me to stop working the ceramic factory saying dust had accumulated in my lungs,” says 40-year-old Dabhi, a native of Dhandhuka taluka in Ahmedabad district.
His wife Lakshmi says past 12 months have been extremely testing for the family. Considering his failing health, the factory made Dabhi a security guard for around six months. However, when his health deteriorated, he was sacked and the family was asked to vacate the labourers’ quarters.
“I had no option but to start working in the factory to prevent my family from being thrown on the road,” she says, requesting not to identify the factory. “Around 700 people are working there and we do not want any of them to lose their job because of us,” she reasons.
As Dabhi’s health deteriorated, Lakshmi stopped working in the factory and the couple purchased a home in Mahendranagar and the couple are now earning their living by selling sarees. Their elder son Kaushik has is doing BBA, while the younger one Kaushik studies in Class VII.
Patel of PTRC says, “Both Thangadh and Morbi are notified areas under ESI Act and factories in these places have to extend ESI benefits to their workers if the number of people working on their premises goes up to 10 or more even for one single day of a year. And what about human rights of worker even if they are not covered under ESI Scheme? Factory owners, ESI and state government are to blame for the state of affairs,” he says.
On May 4, 2016, the Supreme Court asked the Gujarat government to pay Rs 3 lakh compensation to the kin of each of 238 workers who died after developing silicosis while working in quartz mills in Godhra. PTRC helped the victims and kin fight the legal battle.
Sompura says that PCAVT also organises health camps for workers every six months. “Every factory has four to five glazers and most of them are covered in the health screening camps that we organise regularly. Prevalence of silicosis has not been found among them,” he adds.
But Ramji Chavda, 55, an ace glazer who gave up work in 2015 says otherwise. “At least six men whom I had trained as glazers have fallen prey to silicosis,” he claims.