Potters & Sculptors - Making Rock from Mud
Afflicted with an incurable disease, miners in Madhya Pradesh continue to work in hazardous environments, often dying before receiving help
Demand from India’s booming construction industry for granite, sandstone and other minerals has seen the commissioning of more and more stone quarries in mineral-rich states like Madhya Pradesh.
For the people employed by the quarries, however, the work is not only dangerous but potentially lethal. Thousands of workers toiling in hundreds of quarries in Madhya Pradesh inhale air filled with silica and other particulate matters that cause respiratory diseases like tuberculosis, asthma, and, more worryingly, silicosis.
At Hindustan Mineral Products, one of 20 quartz crushing factories in Godhra, every breath comes at a price.
Ramu Mahavir, all of 5 feet tall, knows this only too well. So he has his gear in place — a cotton face-mask and a multi-coloured synthetic handkerchief.
The white dust produced from quartz crushing, also referred to as the “powder of death” in these parts, is known to cause the incurable and irreversible respiratory disease silicosis. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to release over Rs 70 million (US $950,000) as compensation to the families of 238 workers who have died of silicosis after working in Godhra’s quartz and stone-crushing units.
Securing the handkerchief around his mask, Mahavir says, “It’s very dusty. Without this mask (a yellow pad), it is difficult to stand here. Although there is no way to stop breathing dust, the mask helps me to a great extent. I am fit and fine, so far.”
While Mahavir, the only worker at the factory besides two maintenance staff, is well aware of the risks, the work at the factory “is a good way to provide for his family”, he says. “I have managed to build a house in my village, buy two motorcycles — one for my parents in the village — and have also paid off all my debts,” says Mahavir, 35, who belongs to Ramsagar village in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh.
Mahavir reports to work by 10 am. His wife Poona, daughter Maya, 6, and son Rohit, 3, stay with him in his one-room quarter on the factory compound.
“Since my family is here, I feel more at home and do my work better. My wife takes care of the meals and I can see my children grow up, unlike the other migrant workers who have left their families behind,” he says. “My parents and two siblings look after our fields in the village.”
Around noon, two trucks filled with white quartz stones, all mined from the Dahod-Santrampur belt in the eastern part of the state, arrive at the Godhra factory. Mahavir’s job involves overseeing the entire process from here on — unloading the stones to crushing and finally packing the white dust.
Mahavir begins by supervising the offloading of the stones into large conical iron units, where they are stored before being fed into a mechanised unit for processing. After ensuring the transfer of all the stones, Mahavir proceeds to the next step: switching on the conveyor belt connected to the conical units. The stones slide onto the narrow belts, which are surrounded by muddy white mounds of quartz dust.
The conveyor belt is connected to a motor-operated crusher, which has a large iron wheel that breaks down the stones into smaller pieces. As the stones return to the conveyor belt after their first stint inside the crusher, Mahavir checks their size with his hands — he has no gloves on. The cycle continues till the quartz blocks are reduced to a fine glistening white powder. At times, he climbs onto a stool to get to the conical unit and spread out the stones.
It is 3.30 pm, and Mahavir continues with his rounds between the conveyor belt and the crusher, leaving footprints on the thick layer of white powder slathered on the factory floor.
It is this fine dust that contains the deadly silica, which has caused silicosis to many workers in these factories, including several from Mahavir’s district in Madhya Pradesh. It’s from these very residents of his village with silicosis that he first heard about this job opportunity at the “Godhra wali factory”.
“The others from my village came here, worked for a few months, earned money and returned,” he says. “I earn Rs 15,000 a month (US $205 / $9 per day). No job in my village can help me earn this much,” he explains.
But what about the health risks? “I am a poor farmer. We own about 4 bighas (one acre) in the village where we grow soyabean. But when the crops fail, we have to look for other avenues to provide for the family. What other option do I have?” he says.
By now, the dust from the crusher has collected in gunny bags and Mahavir has to seal them. This is considered the most hazardous of the processes. At this factory, while the gunny bags are filled automatically, the sealing is done manually. Today, Mahavir’s wife Poona is helping him out.
They then arrange the gunny bags in neat stacks in a corner of the factory. The gunny bags are later dispatched to glass companies and silicate industries that provide raw material for manufacture of steel, cast iron, aluminum alloys, ceramics, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, among other things.
“Unlike the other tribal members of my village, I did not have to pay dowry to my wife’s father. Many of my friends are forced to take up jobs in the city to pay back the money they borrowed for their dowry, sometimes as high as Rs 1.5 lakh. Since my father-in-law didn’t take any money, Poona and I can save whatever we make here,” Mahavir says. He has been working at the factory for a year-and-a-half, with half-yearly breaks in between to return to his village for farming.
Over the past few months, he has learnt a smattering of Gujarati. “Everyone here speaks Hindi. I don’t have too many interactions with people outside the factory, except for the truck drivers. I manage that,” he smiles.
However, he hasn’t struck up many friendships, “just two other workers who take care of the maintenance of the plant”. “I talk to my employers often,” he adds.
At 2 pm, after a quick lunch, Mahavir prepares to return to the factory to oversee another round of crushing and packaging.
The talk returning to labourers who have fallen to the deadly disease, he says, “So far, I have not faced any health problems. The owner gets my health checked routinely.”
Suman M, the owner of the factory, claims he has taken all the precautions for his workers.
As he walks back, dragging his feet on the thick white dust, Mahavir doesn’t take any chance. Fixing the mask and handkerchief around his face, he says, “I make it a point to not leave it uncovered inside the factory.”