Temple carvers unite against scourge of silicosis

stone carving silicosis

Pindwara, a small town in Sirohi district of Rajasthan, is the main hub for India’s temple-building industry. In the past three years, this sector has been found to spread fatal disease and death through silicosis among men, some as young as 19 years.

The Swaminarayan sect’s imposing Akshardham temple, Bihar and Jharkhand’s Jain mandirs, renovations to the famous Somnath temple in Gujarat — all of these came to life in Pindwara, using Rajasthan’s famous stones, including soapstone, sandstone and red stone.

In Pindwara’s factories, a labor force drawn from the neighboring rural Adivasi and Dalit communities, convert 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 sub-contracting, 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.

Deadly disease

As the spinning blade cuts and grinds these silica-rich stones, a deadly dust emanates in large volumes. This dust is extra fine 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.

There are about 230 such factories in Pindwara, employing roughly 15,000 workers, of which 99% are male. For years, these stone carvers, or pathar gadhai mazdoor, have been dying of some mysterious disease and in total anonymity. This changed in 2016, when two local NGOs, Aajeevika Bureau and Kotda Adivasi Sansthan (KAS), 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, and it came to light that the mysterious death was Silicosis and the temple-building industry’s highly irresponsible work practices were causing these deaths.

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. Over 1000 of them have even received an official certificate from the BoCW Board, while the rest are in pipeline for the Pneumoconiosis Board’s final review.

This data confirms an unsettling truth — that the temples in the country are responsible for spreading death at epidemic levels, with over three out of every 10 of its carving workers suffering from silicosis.

kalu ram stone carver silicosis
Kalu Ram (19), a stone carver for four years, has been afflicted with silicosis. In October 2018, his elder brother Kamlesh (29) died of the disease. Within a month of that, in November, their third brother Suresh (25) also succumbed to silicosis. The oldest of the four, Posa Ram (30), is also confined to bed with silicosis (Photo by Jibitesh Sahoo)

Recent years have seen many shocking and tragic reports of silicosis emerge from many parts of Rajasthan’s stone economy. Data shared by BoCW’s Occupational Health Advisor, Dr P. K. Sishodiya, at a meeting called by the Labor Commissioner in Jaipur on 20th June, 2018, provides some comparative analyses.

High exposure levels

It highlights that in mining, the industry that is most commonly associated with silicosis, the prevalence of the disease peaks in workers in their late 40s to early 50s. However, in temple-building industry, the exposure levels to silica seem unprecedented, as this trend peaks among carving workers in their early to mid 30s.

Corroborating this, the health screening data in Pindwara highlights that the median age of workers diagnosed with Silicosis in the block is just 34 years, with only 13 years of median years of exposure of working in this industry!

Data from the health screenings have confirmed that the prevalence of Silicosis is 50 times higher in stone carving work than among workers in other occupations in Pindwara. That the temple-making industry is responsible for these deaths and disease is now undeniable. Yet, employers in this industry often dismiss the causal link between the disease and the work commissioned by them.

Stone carver Somaram says, “When a worker starts showing signs of falling sick, the contractor fires the worker, making some excuse or the other. If the workers ask for safety, the employers yell abuses, intimidate and dismiss the workers. They say that this is God’s work, why should it need any protection? In fact, they claim that workers will go to heaven for doing this work.”

The industry uses a range of strategies to obscure its responsibility. Right to information (RTI) applications filed by a Workers’ Right Center in Pindwara that was set up by Aajeevika Bureau and KAS revealed that only 3% of these factories are registered under the Factories Act, with a majority falling outside the regulatory ambit despite its hazardous nature.

The Center found that 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. The team at this Workers’ Rights Center visited each and every factory in Pindwara, recording data points and found that over a quarter of the factories do not even put a name board on their premises, conveniently shrouding their operations in anonymity.

This study also found that over 90% of the industry workforce is not on roll and made to work in highly temporary, undocumented ways, which helps factories avoid an employer-employee relationship with an affected worker.

Blaming workers

Another method to escape responsibility is to blame the workers for their disease. Dhanraj Jat of the Center says, “Employers use all kinds of tactics to distract everyone from the real issue. Instead of focusing on the lack of safety in their factories as a reason for widespread silicosis, they blame the workers themselves. They ascribe the disease to drinking and smoking habits, and stress on the workers’ reluctance to wear masks, which they claim to have provided. They continue to make such excuses, despite numerous meetings with them where occupational health experts and doctors have confirmed that the masks provided by them cannot protect workers, given the volume and size of dust in these factories.”

In early 2017, the Center filed RTIs with Pindwara’s Panchayat Samiti to obtain statistics on recent deaths in this area. The records disclose that the rough  death rate among working age males in Pindwara is four times higher than the state average in Rajasthan! Moreover, this is an underestimation and the ratio is most likely much higher, since the state average includes mortality among infants and old persons too.

In addition, household surveys conducted by the Center in 11 panchayats of the block found that 300 stone carvers died between 2014 and 2016. These men never received the kind of health screening that has become accessible in the last three years. However, they all died reporting symptoms of advanced silicosis such as coughing, breathlessness and extreme weight loss.

That these deaths occurred most likely due to silicosis is also validated by its prevalence peaking during the working ages of 21 to 35 years, similar to the trends that we are seeing today when better official data is available. These deceased workers are survived by young women, who are now struggling for basic survival. These women have over 700 small children to take care of, with incredibly scarce resources. These survey numbers from just 11 panchayats indicate that the gravity of the overall problem in the block and its surrounding villages is of a mind-boggling scale.

Saga of dispossession

The history of tribal groups in the country and in southern Rajasthan is a long saga of dispossession from forests and fertile lands. Environmental toll from dramatic climate change experienced in this region has been deepened with the setting up of extractive factories in the area. In the past few decades, the transformation of local Adivasi and Dalit groups from producers of food into a vast army of cheap, desperate labor force has been completed.

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.

With 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, pauperized by and alienated from their material bases of life, have picked up unsafe machines to take over the carving role, which in turn has become highly lethal with irresponsible mechanization.

Chilling normalization

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. This way, the temple-building industry is ensured of a steady supply of cheap and easily extractable young workforce, whose fundamental right to life can be suspended with total impunity and no repercussions.

A few hundred kilometers from Pindwara is Ahmedabad, where the Swaminarayan sect’s headquarters (one of the biggest employers in the industry) is located. For tourists and religious followers, their temples are marvels of craftsmanship. The sound and light show, the robots on display, it all makes one feel like they are in a religious Disneyland, which cannot possibly be part of the same world as Pindwara’s villages of widows.

It is hard to imagine that something so grand and righteous is produced in ways so unethical and unconscionable. In this temple-building industry, capitalism is combined with religiosity. It has made for a potent combination that is capable of blinding consumers of the ungodliness subsumed within it.

The situation in Pindwara ignites the deepest rage and represents the paradoxes that surround the life of labor today. A necessary antidote to such structural exploitation of workers is their ability to organize and hold industry accountable. The dispersed and fragmented nature of work today heavily undermines the preconditions needed for such collectivization.

Uniting workers at risk of silicosis

Despite this, about 1,000 stone-carving workers have come together in Pindwara to form a union called the Pathar Gadhai Suraksha Sangh. Their numbers are growing by the day and their main demand is for the temple-building industry to behave responsibly and invest in effective safety and protection of workers. India has a veritable history where struggles of the dispossessed have brought seemingly impossible changes. Pindwara’s workers hope that they will be able to chart a similar story for themselves.

Supported by the Center, the Union is bringing critical consciousness among workers, and has been holding public hearings with the Human Rights Commission, district office and local political parties. To build up legal evidence and pressure on employers, they have filed around 50 cases under the Workmen Compensation Act and Employees’ State Insurance Act.

A young Silicosis patient asks a question to Justice P.C. Tatiya of Rajasthan Human Rights Commission in a public hearing organized by the Pathar Gadhai Suraksha Sangh and the Workers’ Right Centre in Pindwara in December 2017 (Photo by Yuvraj Dhir)

A young Silicosis patient asks a question to Justice P.C. Tatiya of Rajasthan Human Rights Commission in a public hearing organized by the Pathar Gadhai Suraksha Sangh and the Workers’ Right Center in Pindwara in December 2017 (Photo by Yuvraj Dhir)

The Center and Union have been assisting around 5,000 affected families to navigate complex bureaucracies to access state welfare and compensation schemes. Leveraging the progress that has been made in Pindwara by forming a Working Group for the Prevention of Silicosis in Stone Carving Industry, this group has been housed under the state’s Labor Department and anchored by the Aajeevika Bureau and KAS. The purpose of the Working Group is to ensure effective curative, rehabilitative and preventive measures against Silicosis in Pindwara and in other similar locations.

Preventing silicosis

Given the incurable and fatal nature of Silicosis, the only sustainable solution to the problem is to prevent the onset of the disease. This requires industry to acknowledge that cost-reduction cannot occur at the expense of workers’ health and lives. Effective solutions for dust control are required that can be feasibly deployed even in small factories. The group has found allies in Dunu Roy and Ranjan Mehta from the Hazards Center. They are working together to evolve context-specific, safety solutions.

Supported by engineers, lawyers, researchers and sympathetic government officials, the demand among the people of Pindwara to make their lives silicosis-free is growing by the day. But the challenge that lies ahead of them remains formidable. It remains to be seen if the big players of the industry will genuinely engage with this safety initiative, bearing the costs and burden of the process, instead of outsourcing it to the lower chain of smaller firms, contractors and other intermediaries.

It also remains to be seen if the state government, which has distributed over Rs 14 crore in Sirohi as compensation to silicosis victims, will take up the tough job of declaring the industry hazardous under the Factories Act. This would bring even the smallest units under regulatory ambit and encourage accountability in the business of building temples.

It also remains to be seen if the state government, which has distributed over Rs 14 crore in Sirohi as compensation to silicosis victims, will take up the tough job of declaring the industry hazardous under the Factories Act. This would bring even the smallest units under regulatory ambit and encourage accountability in the business of building temples.

Published under the Creative Commons 3.0 unported licence from Village Square.

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