Only a few have heard of Pindwara, a block in southern Rajasthan’s Sirohi district. This nondescript town is home to about 230 factories that have built some of India’s most famous temples. The Swaminarayan sect’s imposing Akshardham temple, Bihar and Jharkhand’s Jain mandirs, Somnath Temple of Gujarat, and the ongoing constructions of the famous Ram Mandir at Ayodha, UP — all of these came to life in Pindwara, using Rajasthan’s famous stones, including soapstone, sandstone and red stone. Raw materials are procured majorly from six districts of the state including Jodhpur, Bundi, Alwar, Bharatpur, Karauli and Bhilwara.
The Adivasis (namely, Bhil, Meena, Damor, Patelias, Saharaiyas, and Gharasia) and Dalit labourers of Pindwara have been building big and small temples spread across the length and breadth of the country for decades. They are called the Patthar Gadhai Mazdoor community. For years, these stone carvers, have been dying of a mysterious disease in total anonymity.
“Workers employed in stone carving are locally referred to as bateh mazdoor. They were originally farmers and forest dwellers, who some four decades ago, started shifting to factories and construction sites in search of better livelihood opportunities. The stones they work on, are rich in silica, which emit a lot of toxic fumes during the carving process. This causes many fatal incurable diseases like Silicosis, Pneumoconiosis and Pulmonary fibrosis.”Dhanraj Jat, Workers’ Rights Center
In the past five years, this sector has been found to spread such diseases leading to death. Silicosis is more common among men, some as young as 19 years. In Pindwara’s factories, which are mostly subsidiaries or contractors of an enterprise, labour force drawn from the neighbouring patthar gadhai mazdoor communities, convert massive blocks of these stones into ornately carved pillars, statues and articles, which are then transported and fitted into temples across the country and even overseas.
In these factories, operated directly by religious trusts or indirectly through subcontracting, multi-crore temples are built using cheap machines that lack the most basic features of safety and dust-control. Blades of these machines revolve at an incredible speed of 600 revolutions per minute or more – emitting hazardous noise and silica dust levels. Each worker is being exposed to such work conditions for 8-9 hours per day, 29 days a month. They get a holiday only on an amavasya night.
As the spinning blade cuts and grinds these silica-rich stones, a deadly dust emanates in large volumes. This dust is extra fine (PM 2.5 and PM 10) and ordinary masks are incapable of filtering them out. The silica in the dust, therefore, makes its way into the workers’ lungs, eroding and scarring it rapidly, causing the deadly, incurable respiratory disease of silicosis. This renders the worker unable to work and financially support his family.
Moreover, most of the bateh mazdoors work in an informal, low wage setup. Their employers don’t take adequate safety measures to prevent worksite accidents and deaths, even basic provisions of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) are missing. Another method to escape responsibility is to blame the workers for their disease.
Several employers/contractors routinely perpetrate irregularities in PF deductions and gratuity settlements by firing the workers without proper notice, intermittent factory lockdowns and malpractices that affect service tenure continuity of workers, hence, subverting the liability on employers to pay gratuity on retirement or job termination.
Payments are cut for availing sick leaves, even termination for prolonged absence. At times, even accidental compensations and full and final wage settlements are not done by the employers, which is a blatant violation of labour codes and factories Act. There is a general lack of political and administrative will on the part of local administration and state labour department, which augurs well for these influential employers.
Majority of these factories are not registered under the Factories Act and hence, are not hazardous compliant. Outsourcing of work to small, unregistered units and changing work pattern to a piece-rate system are being actively used by the religious trusts to maintain a distance from the deaths occurring in their production value chains. Over 1/4th of the factories do not even put a name board on their premises, conveniently shrouding their operations in anonymity. More than 90% of the industry workforce is not on roll and made to work in highly temporary, undocumented ways.
Bateh mazdoori is referred to as God’s work by employers – they claim that workers will go to heaven for doing this work. Irrespective of health and occupational risks, a worker is expected to toil without complaining, taking all hardships and even his death, in stride. Employers in this industry often dismiss the causal link between the disease and the work commissioned by them. The tribal and Dalit communities in Pindwara, working in this industry, therefore suffer the double whammy of silicosis and socio-economic exploitation from their employers. What’s more is that not long ago, community members presumed this series of deaths to be some sort of a black magic!
But thanks to two local organizations, Aajeevika Bureau and Kotada Adivasi Sansthan (KAS), who in the year 2016, observed the unusual high mortality in the region and alerted Rajasthan’s Building and Other Construction Workers Board (BoCW). A series of health screening were conducted in the area, followed by a time-motion study in collaboration with Hazard Centre, and it came to light that the mysterious deaths were due to silicosis and the temple-building industry’s highly irresponsible work practices.
Since then, over 5,000 workers in Pindwara have undergone health screening, covering about one-third of the labor force. Data from these health camps (organized by Rajasthan’s BoCW Board and Sirohi’s Health Department) reveal that a startling 35% of the screened workers were diagnosed with Silicosis – a notified disease.
For context, in the vibrant mining sector of Rajasthan, the prevalence of the disease peaks among older workers in their late 40s and 50s. In stone-carving, however, the exposure to dust is so extreme, the Silicosis victims in Pindwara are on average in their early 30s. Using death records of the area, it was observed that the crude death rate among working-age men in Pindwara block is over 4 times the state average. They are now unionizing to demand freedom from disease and for dignity in God’s work.
To understand these worker collectivization and community-led efforts, I met with leaders of a stone-carving community collective Patthar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh – Madan Lal Meghwal and Sohan Lal Gharasia at Aajeevika’s Workers Rights Centre in Pindwara.
Picture: A collage of snapshots of studies and efforts undertaken by Aajeevika Bureau through the forum of Patthar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh, over the last few years
Mohan Lal*, a stone-carver himself for the last 20 years, informs, “The history of tribal groups in the country and in southern Rajasthan is a long saga of dispossession from forests and fertile lands. Besides the availability of cheap labor, the location of this industry in Pindwara is also due to the presence of the Sompura community, whose roots are in this region. This community has historically been in the occupation of carving stones for temples, especially till the work was done manually with a hammer and chisel.”
“…The introduction of grinder and cutters about two or three decades back, and the simultaneous proliferation of temple building in the country, Sompuras have become profitable intermediaries. Today their role has shifted to designing and advising religious trusts. Meanwhile, the local Adivasis and Dalits groups, have picked up unsafe machines to take over the carving role, which in turn has become highly lethal with irresponsible mechanization.”
The result of these processes is that the villages of Pindwara have become ghost villages. Funerals are an everyday affair, death is routine and there is a chilling normalization around families missing several or all of its male members. The tragic irony is that for a household that has been thrown into distress with the death of its male earning member, the only recourse to a livelihood is for the next generation to turn to the same dust-filled factories for work.
Sanjay Lal*, the Sangathan President, observes, “The government provides Rs. 3,00,000 as one-time assistance to the affected person after certification and a pension of Rs. 1,500 per month, plus a sum of Rs. 2,00,000 to the legal heir or nominee in the event of the death of the victim. There is also a widow pension to wife and benefits under Palanhaar scheme. The government also provides funeral assistance of Rs. 10,000 to the dependent. But many aggrieved families face issue in getting a certificate (as it needs a clearance certificate duly signed by employer accepting the worker to be bonafide employee and afflicted with silicosis due to work) and subsequently, to avail the benefits due to unnecessary bureaucracy and a mandate to register online”. He tells that an estimated 8,000-10,000 certified silicosis patients are still offline.
In Pindwara, the Sangathan has decided to undertake its own experiments in safety solutions. They have paired up with safety engineers and labour activists from the Hazard Centre. Sangathan also regularly carries out community outreach and capacity building campaigns on basic entitlements of patient families, and policy work cum advocacy with local administration and factory owners.
In Focus: Patthar Gadhai community leaders being trained on basic entitlements and social security benefits by Sangathan members. These training sessions often end up being an engaging focus group discussion (FGD) platforms
The issue of silicosis, labour code violations and wage settlement malpractices witnessed in Pindwara need a multipronged policy intervention involving all the stakeholders – the community, the stone sector employers, ESIC (Employees’ State Insurance Corporation) and local administration, grassroots organizations, mazdoor sangathans and healthcare experts. Strict enforcement of Arbitration and Reconciliation Act of 1996, Factories Act and ESIC Act needs to be taken up by both authorities and industry, in the long run. As far as OSH and silicosis fatality is concerned, prevention is the best cure – both at technology design and policy level.
“Though prevention is becoming a priority, there is a lack of understanding in Jaipur about how to take this agenda forward. Ensuring safety will need strong policy decisions on industry regulation, in addition to introducing effective dust-control technology, which is both worker-friendly and suited for the informal work conditions found across Rajasthan’s stone economy”, adds Sachin Poonia* from Aajeevika Bureau’s legal aid division, who is also a part of Rajasthan’s Silicosis response network that has been engaging the state government on the issue.
*Name changed to protect identity
It depicts the reality better,nicely written facts.hope for better policies to change the scenario.
It depicts the reality better,nicely written facts.hope for better policies to change the scenario.