JASWANT Manjhi had not heard of silicosis, even after it started eating away at his body. Today, he fears it may be too late for him.
This 40-year-old has already lost his elder brother Mukesh, younger sister Kokila and her husband Tansinh — all workers like him at stone quarries in Godhra — to the respiratory disease. And he is among the survivors still waiting for justice from the Gujarat government.
“We had no idea that it would completely eat away our bodies. We quit the job within three years, but the damage had been done,” said Manjhi from Shankarpura village in Dahod’s Jhalod taluka.
The story of these stone quarry workers made headlines after the Supreme Court, in a rare order last week, directed the Gujarat government to release more than Rs 7 crore as compensation to the families of 238 workers who died due to silicosis after working in its quartz and stone crushing industries.
But for those like Manjhi, getting compensation from the Employee’s State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) that a Vadodara labour court ordered last year has proved to be a fruitless struggle. Some silicosis victims turned to religion for solace, and others alleged that they were handed tuberculosis cards by the local Primary Health Centre (PHC).
The victims started hitting one government wall after another ever since September 26, 2011, when the People’s Training and Research Centre (PTRC), an NGO acting on their behalf, filed petitions with the labour court in Vadodara and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), seeking compensation.
In October 2013, with six of the 19 petitioners, including Manjhi’s brother and sister, already dead, the NHRC recommended a compensation of Rs 5 lakhs each for their families and asked the state government to submit a compliance report by February 2014. The government is yet to respond.
In March 2015, the Vadodara labour court ruled in favour of the victims, ordering the ESIC to pay compensation with seven per cent interest since 2007 to each to the survivors. But the corporation took the matter to the Gujarat High Court, where it is pending.
Asked why the government was yet to comply with the NHRC deadline of over two years ago, Gujarat’s Labour and Employment Minister Vijay Rupani told The Indian Express: “I am not aware of this case. I will look into it.”
Meanwhile, the silicosis story continues to survive in the skeletal frames of victims such as Manjhi.
”My meagre earnings as a daily-wage labourer forced me to turn towards a stone quarry at the insistence of Kokila and Tansinh, who were both earning close to Rs 6,000 each every month,” said Manjhi.
Today, Manjhi’s wife Kali, who complains of persistent cough despite having given up quarry work after just a few months, is the sole breadwinner of the family of five, including two daughters and a son.
In nearby Chitrodia village, Ramudi is hopeful that the Supreme Court’s order will help her deceased husband Mangu Damor’s case. In its response to the NHRC on Damor’s case, the Gujarat government stated that he had not worked in any registered factory at Godhra.
Ramudi says she used to work with her husband in a quarry until she suffered a paralytic stroke in 2006. The family, she says, converted to Christianity “for healing”. On the wall inside Ramudi’s hut are photographs of Jesus Christ and Mary alongside a calendar carrying a picture of Pope Francis.
”The priest told us that I would get alright if we say the prayers. We did that and I recovered. But in 2011, my husband died of silicosis and my younger daughter died of an ailment. I do not have the energy to run after this case. But I am hoping that the government will give us compensation,” she said, adding that her two sons and another daughter work as labourers in Jhalod.
A few lanes away, Surma, whose husband Fakira Damor died in 2012 of silicosis, is also awaiting compensation. Her son, 26-year-old Kanu Damor, says that he, too, suffers from silicosis after having started work at a quarry as a teenager.
However, he said, the Jhalod PHC has given him an identity card under the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Program (RNTCP).
”I worked with my father and filled gunny bags with crushed stone. We were never advised to cover our faces or take any safety measures. Both of us, together, earned close to Rs 400 per day, which is a big amount even today,” said Kanu.
”The PHCs simply hand out the tuberculosis cards to persons affected with silicosis as they do not want to get into any complications. In most cases, this is also one reason for the lack of documentary evidence to prove that they suffer from silicosis,” said Rajendra Jaiswal of Prakruti Foundation, an NGO that has been working for silicosis victims in Jhalod, along with PTRC.
According to Jagdish Patel of PTRC, 311 people from Jhalod were found to be affected by silicosis in a 2006 survey. However, he said, the lack of documentary evidence to prove that all victims had contracted the disease while working at stone quarries in Godhra meant that only a few were seen as bonafide petitioners.