Khambat, once a commercial port of Gujarat, has become a death trap for the thousands employed in the agate industry as the dust generated while grinding and polishing the mineral gets into the lungs, causing silicosis, says a study by the NGO People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). The study, conducted in the Shakarpur village of the town, has revealed that at least 25 people have succumbed to silicosis in the last two years.
Silicosis is a respiratory disorder caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust and causes inflammation and nodular lesions in the lungs. It can even result in death. According to the PUCL and social activists, the economically impoverished workers in the agate industry have been dying of silicosis at regular intervals for the last 40 years in Khambhat.
The National Human Rights Commission, through a notice to the Gujarat government last month, had drawn attention to the high incidence of deaths because of silicosis. Earlier in the year, the commission had spelt out recommendations for tackling the menace. A National Task Force has also been set up by the commission under the leadership of Justice Shivraj V. Patil to look into the issue and come out with recommendations.
The agate industry, a household industry in Khambat and its surrounding villages, employs over 30,000 people, many of them women. The process goes through mining, drying, frying, grinding and polishing of agate stones which are then converted into beads by heating, chipping, grinding, drilling, and polishing for use in jewellery and other decorative items.
According to the PUCL, "Mineral dust, especially silica produced during the stone grinding, causes pneumoconiosis tuberculosis and other respiratory disorders. Mining and cutting of stones produces silica dust and prolonged exposure causes silicosis among workers. It is an occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust and is marked by inflammation and scarring in forms of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs." The disease is preventable but not curable and can be fatal.
"Gujarat is very proud of the agate industry but has never paid any attention to the workers, those who are waiting for death," the report says. Although the agate industry has been prevalent in many parts of Gujarat for centuries, with the passage of time Khambat has remained the only centre of agate grinding. The PUCL report claims that agate is one of the most profitable trades with the Ministry of Commerce and its Gem and Jewellery Promotion Council. "Both the government and the businessmen earn huge amounts of money out of the agate industry but they care least for the workers who are pushed to the death trap because of acute poverty and unemployment," the report says.
The PUCL investigators found, "The facts of silicosis menace among the workers have been suppressed by traders, employers and government machineries. The workers treated in the hospitals are never or hardly diagnosed with silicosis. Although everyone knows that the workers have been infected with silicosis, on record it is hardly recognised by the government. In apprehension of losing jobs, the workers themselves hide their infection."
The report says that all government notified industry owners and the local authorities are flouting norms pertaining to the agate industry, including on the exhaust systems. "The National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) recommendations of establishing a proper exhaust system with air cleaning device is deliberately ignored. Evaluation of the exhaust system by dust monitoring showed that there was 94 percent reduction in dust levels with the use of exhaust system," says the PUCL report.
The investigations also revealed that Shakarpur village has no primary health centre. This village has been attached to Uddel village, which is 12 km away and has a one-room sub health centre. Besides material compensation and security to the victims, the PUCL has recommended that the government ensure that the industrialists adhere to the norms laid down. It has also called for a policy for occupational health and safety besides making the industrialists resort to safer methods of production.
The PUCL team comprised Gautam Thaker, Dhiru Mistry and Dwarika Nath Rath.