Five members of her family succumbed to silicosis a decade ago. Now, three remain. Of them, her two bedridden sons also suffer from the disease. At 60, Limbudi Khuma earns Rs 50 a day collecting tendu leaves in Satsera village in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua district — part of the Ratlam Lok Sabha constituency that votes on May 19. It is not enough to pay the hospital bills for her sons, she says.
Located on the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border, the village has no roads, and is yet to see a political party campaign in the region. “No one comes here for votes. They know our demands, they can’t fulfil them,” says Khuma, a Scheduled Tribe. Her demands are simple: rehabilitation and water.
Across 87 tribal villages in the Ratlam region, 349 people have died due to silicosis since 2001. As per data from Madhya Pradesh government’s Labour Department, there are over 3,000 confirmed silicosis cases in Alirajpur and Jhabua — two of the eight Assembly segments in Ratlam.
In 2001, after acute water scarcity in Jhabua hit their cotton and corn cultivation, Khuma’s entire family migrated to Gujarat’s quartz crushing units. But without protective gears, the family was exposed to the toxic crystalline silica dust, which soon led to lung inflammation. Between 2003 to 2005, she lost her husband, her 21-year-old daughter, and three sons to silicosis.
“The water in our wells dried up and farming stopped. Even MGNREGA work was not available. Several villagers from the region migrated to Gujarat’s quartz crushing units which paid Rs 100-150 for a day’s work,” says Rakesh, Khuma’s son. The family received Rs 9 lakh compensation from the Gujarat government for the three deceased, but awaits compensation for the remaining two.
That money, she says, has all been spent in the treatment of her two sons.
In 2010, the National Human Rights Commission had directed the Madhya Pradesh government to provide rehabilitation to the patients, and the Gujarat government to provide Rs 3 lakh compensation to the kin of dead. In 2016, the Supreme Court upheld NHRC’s decision.
A few kilometres away, in Antarveliya village, Vesta Madiya (70) lost four family members to silicosis, and is yet to receive any compensation. “Both my brothers died within years of working at the quartz units. I was afraid to take up work there, but there was no MGNREGA work here either. So seven years ago I had to migrate to feed my family. They would have died of hunger,” says Madiya’s son Dhula Vesta, 23.
In the 2014 general elections, he says, he voted for the BJP “because they promised employment”. “But there is none,” says Vesta.
Scheduled Tribes constitute 34 per cent of Madhya Pradesh’s 91.07 lakh MGNREGA work force. However, alleges Mandli village resident Dinesh Raising, also a patient of silicosis, they have got no work despite visiting government officials several times. He has also lost his wife and sister to the disease.
Eighty-five per cent of Ratlam’s 20 lakh voters are Scheduled Tribes. A traditional Congress bastion, the BJP won the seat for the first time in 2014 when the party’s Dileep Bhuria defeated four-time MP and former Union tribal minister Kantilal Bhuria by 1.25 lakh votes. In the bypolls that followed Dileep’s death in 2016, the Congress won the seat again.
Tribal residents of the region complain that while the Congress promised a loan waiver for farmers within 10 days of forming government in Madhya Pradesh, the party remains silent on rehabilitation for silicosis victims.
“Monthly pension under rehabilitation is a Cabinet process, it will take time to fix the amount for patients. The BJP was in power in the state for 15 years, what did it do?” incumbent Congress MP Bhuria told The Indian Express as he campaigned in Rampura, 10 km from Satsera village.
In the contest for Ratlam, Bhuria is up against the BJP’s Gumansingh Damor, who in the Assembly elections last year won the difficult Jhabua seat, defeating Bhuria’s son Vikrant. “Health, education and self-employment are key issues for me,” Damor said. He did not comment on the silicosis issue.
The BJP is confident that the anti-incumbency in Ratlam will ensure a win for the party. “The Jhabua win last year is an indication that people want change,” says BJP district president Om Sharma. A decade ago, says the BJP’s campaign manager O P Rai, “It was difficult to even campaign for the BJP in Ratlam, but we have broken into this bastion finally.”
The Congress holds five of the eight Assembly segments in Ratlam.