Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Somebody called Paipa Ram

In Jodhpur, or an hour's drive away, I met a man called Paipa Ram.

Paipa Ram has Silicosis. Certified Silicosis... That's a very hard thing to have, you know... a lot of people in a lot of mines have Silicosis, but being a certified victim to a fatal, industry-specific disease is a special thing. That's why I went to meet him.

But what I found, on that racked body, was more than just a respiratory disease. He had deep wounds, and small round scars, all over his back, lower chest and stomach.

When I asked how this happened, he answered me with a slow rocking laugh that soon turned into a long coughing session. "Keelein", he finally gasped out.

Keel. Iron nails. The large kind you hammer into walls to hang pictures upon.

'Keelein?' I stared at him, looking every bit as dumb as I felt.

That set him off again. He laughed and coughed, and coughed and laughed, until all I could hear was that rasping cough and mirthless noise against a backdrop of an awful, dust-laden silence.

It turned out, he suffered terrible pains in the abdomen, and his belly was slightly swollen, though the rest of his body was very thin. So, the local medicine-man punctured holes in his body, with hot iron nails...
'Keelein'.

I stared horrified, as Paipa Ram pulled up his vest and showed me the various puncture marks.

When I found the words, I turned to his friend, who was a little more educated, and a member of the mine-workers' union. "Why don't you go to a good doctor? A hospital?"
He simply told me that there is no doctor, no hospital.

There isn't even a primary health centre in this region. There is nobody to deal with one ordinary tummy-ache. Who would deal with Silicosis? Who would certify a certain death? Who would try and stall it?

Paipa Ram doesn't expect to live. He said as much. When he told me that he was going to die, I remembered with a sudden stab of guilt, that man called Ram Jiyawan.
This is how Ram Jiyawan looked.

Following the story, some activists who were traveling through Shankargarh, stopped to check on him. They called me back later to tell me that Ram Jiyawan is now dead.
Dead. And I feel the guilt that does not belong to me.

Jodhpur is rumoured to have 7500 mines, large and small, legal or illegal. And Jodhpur is only one mining of the state's districts. Besides, these are only sandstone quarries. The dust is damning here, but not as bad as silica quarries, where respiratory disorders settle in after a decade. And nothing as bad as the quartz mines, where people die within two or three years, even if they've been exposed to the fine silica crystals, for only a couple of months.

In Gujarat's quartz factories, most of the workers are migrants. Tribals from Madhya Pradesh. From poor regions like Jhabua who are so desperate that they continue to work, ignoring the fact that at least 400 of them have died in recent times. Local doctors and activists have been surveying these workers who go to work in the factories of Balasindur (Balasindhur?) and Godra (Godhra?) are known to employ mostly migrants - for about Rs 300 a week.

No local Gujarati labourer would work for so little. And no tribal has enough, to be able to refuse this money. Not even when they know they might die.

Oh yes, there are medical reports. There are post-mortem reports. There is evidence.
But there is no conviction. And there is no action by the state. No enforcement of safety norms, nor any compensation for those who work in such hazardous industries.

And I can't help wondering... why is the state so silent? Is it not the responsibility of the state government to intervene in some way? The Gujarat government? The Madhya Pradesh government? The central government? Somebody?

2 comments:

Pawan said...

Chilling.

Anonymous said...

In our elitist society, the only workers who count are the unionized lot in the "organized" sector of the economy. The rest -- those in the unorganised sector and who desperately need help -- do not count. Nor does one have to travel far in to the countryside to observe less gruesome but equal vile phenomena in our major cities. My sister, observing a worker applying green paint to railings with her bare hands and a cloth observed that since paint contains known carcinogens, workers are supposed to be supplied with gloves to prevent the paint from coming in contact with the hands. This requirement apparently is regularly flouted by the contractors. And this was in New Delhi.

If this is the state of affairs in our capital, then we need not wonder about what happens elsewhere. I am old enough to remember that silicosis was reported - yes in the mines of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh - in the 1980s!

There is plenty of blame to go around. To a large extent, it is a reflection of our very elitist society where the lesser-off get a look only when something goes spectacularly wrong: an earthquake, cyclone, tsunami, floods...

The question is what needs to be done. I suspect your recommendation would be for more government involvement and perhaps a ban on such mining. I am sceptical given the past history of our central and state governments.

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