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Do not breathe easy on the silicosis prevention policy

Workers break silica stones at Shankargarh village in U.P.’s Prayagraj (Allahabad) district. File   | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

Long before COVID-19 hit, countless workers engaged in mines, construction and factories in India were silently dying of exposure to dust, utmost exploitation and apathy. They continue to do so.

Rajasthan’s pioneering model

One State — Rajasthan — with the top-most share of over 17% in value of mineral production in the country and a long history of civil society activism, was the first to notify silicosis as an ‘epidemic’ in 2015, under the Rajasthan Epidemic Diseases Act, 1957. In 2019, it announced a formal Pneumoconiosis Policy, only next to Haryana.

 

Silicosis is part of the pneumoconiosis family of diseases, described by the policy as “occupational diseases due to dust exposure... are incurable, cause permanent disability and are ‘totally preventable by available control measures and technology’ (emphasis added)”. A ‘silicosis portal’ was hosted by the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment and a system of worker self-registration, diagnosis through district-level pneumoconiosis boards and compensation from the District Mineral Foundation Trust (DMFT) funds to which mine owners contribute, was put in place. In just two years, the State has officially certified and compensated over 25,000 patients of silicosis, of which 5,500 have already died of the disease.

Gaps in the system

But even this ‘pioneering model’ stops short of where it matters the most. In the mining sector alone, none of the silicosis cases diagnosed has been notified by mine owners or reported by the examining doctors to the Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS), Ministry of Labour and Employment. But this is what they are legally required to do, according to Section 25 of the erstwhile Mines Act, 1952 and Section 12 of the now-effective Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSHWC) Code, 2020.

Why is notifying cases to the DGMS important? Only that would shift the paradigm from compensation to prevention, and fix the responsibility on mine owners, who now continue to slip away despite violating safety and preventive protocols. The DGMS, the sole enforcement authority for health and safety in mines, can take action against mine owners only if it knows who they are, and in turn, whom they employ. But only 10%-20% of the over 33,100 mining leases and quarry licences in Rajasthan are DGMS-registered.

Also read | Call for accountability law in Rajasthan

So the present system is designed to ‘consume’ the worker and dispense with him with a small compensation while the mine owner sits back and continues to hire the next able worker — an inhuman cycle, which the Government is complicit in.

Labour Code dilutions

Persistent attempts to establish the employer-worker relationship on record have drawn a blank, given that the mine-owning community is a major revenue contributor to the State. That said, the immediate impetus for silicosis prevention could come from two related places in the OSHWC Code.

Section 6 of the Code makes it mandatory for all employers to provide annual health checks free of cost “to such employees of such age or such class of employees of establishments or such class of establishments, as may be prescribed by the appropriate Government”. Section 20 gives powers to the DGMS to conduct health and occupational surveys in mines.

Positive as they sound, these sections are severely diluted from the earlier Mines Act provisions, which in turn, were simply never implemented. The draft Central rule 6 corresponding to Section 6 of the Code fixes an age floor of 45 years for workers in all establishments (including mines) to be eligible for these health checks, though Rules 92 to 102 provide for initial and periodic examinations of all mine workers from their time of joining — which is an anomaly. Two, Section 20 places no obligation on the mine owner to provide any form of rehabilitation in terms of alternative employment in the mine, or payment of a disability allowance/lump sum compensation for a worker found medically unfit. These paragraphs in the earlier Mines Act linked to the Workmen’s Compensation Act (also subsumed), have been deleted.

A ‘medically unfit’ worker is thus expected to leave the job and fend for themselves or subsist on the compensation of ₹3 lakh provided in Rajasthan from the DMFT — and not even that, perhaps, in other States.

Steps for prevention

State governments need to be alive to these dreadful regressions and use their powers to contain the damage. Rajasthan could lead the way by establishing a robust system of preventive annual health checks as a real and regular feature of the silicosis prevention plan.

One, the related State departments, in close dialogue with the DGMS, must urgently draw up detailed guidelines for district-wise health surveys. The State rules under the OSHWC Code must take care to ensure the health checks are provided to all workers in all establishments, irrespective of age. The State Advisory Board (Section 17 of the Code), along with technical committees, must be quickly constituted, with workers and their representatives having a say in them.

Two, local manufacturers must be incentivised to innovate and develop low-cost dust-suppressant and wet-drilling mechanisms that could either be subsidised or provided free of cost to the mine owners. Existing prototypes must be tested and scaled up.

Three, the DMFT funds are both underutilised and spent in an entirely ad hoc manner. A Centre for Science and Environment report shows Rajasthan had ₹3,514 crore under DMFTs in 2020 of which only approximately ₹750 crore was spent. Their haphazard allocation for non-mineworker-related expenditure must be replaced by a streamlined and accountable system for the direct benefit of mineworkers under clearly defined budget heads such as prevention (including innovation fund and subsidy for wet drilling equipment), disability compensation, solatium, administrative expenses and others. But even this planning will be incomplete without bringing worker-employer identification on record. A systematic identification ultimately lies in the hands of the authorities and their will to enforce the law in this regard and a rising among the workers for their rights.

No more time must be lost in bringing prevention to the heart of the pneumoconiosis policy.

Sowmya Sivakumar is an independent writer and has worked as a research consultant for the Mine Labour Protection Campaign, Jodhpur, Rajasthan


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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 1:01:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/do-not-breathe-easy-on-the-silicosis-prevention-policy/article36974136.ece

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