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Mainstream, VOL LX No 3, New Delhi, January 8, 2022

Bhiwani Tragedy Again Highlights Pressing Need for Reforms in Stone Mining For Protecting Workers and Environment | Bharat Dogra

Friday 7 January 2022, by Bharat Dogra

On the morning of January 1, in Dadam area of Bhiwani district, Haryana, a huge portion of a hill being mined for its stone fell down with a very loud blast. The death of 3 workers was reported soon after this. Serious concern has been expressed that a higher number of workers may have been buried under big stones. What could be seen be immediately was that the stones which fell from a big height were so huge that several dumper truck and machines were buried under this. What is not yet known at the time of writing is whether there were workers on these machines and dumper trucks, and if yes, what happened to them. Rescue teams have been brought in and these are at work.

It is significant that not just leading opposition political leaders but even leading ruling party BJP leaders have issued statements that this area has been ravaged badly by a mining mafia. A BJP leader for example has stated that this area is dominated by goons who keep away outsiders so that safety violations in mines can be overlooked. He has said that he has personally noticed and pointed out digging to excessive depths at several places and this could have destbilized the hills resulting in the big fall on January 1.

Published reports have held out the possibility tht due to increase in price of construction materials there was a rush for meeting some big supply orders and so excessive blasting was used to get quick supplies, ignorng essential political precautions. These possiblities will no doubt be examined by an official inquiry, but what is really important is that safety requirements get the most important priority in future. Earlier also safety neglect, environmental ruin and glaring exploitation of workers have been pointed out repeatedly in ining cases relating to Haryana.

The most immediate priority just now is to rescue trapped workers. The truth regarding workers should not be hidden. Adequate compensatory payment for all affected workers should be ensured.

The most widespread mining in India relates to mining and quarrying of various kinds of stone aimed at supplying stone to construction sector. Since this is widely scattered in the country and is frequently in the informal sector, complete and reliable records are difficult to obtain but clearly it is very widespread and despite some legal restrictions placed from time to time, on the whole this has been expanding fast to meet the growing needs of the construction industry.

In many cases stone crushing units are set up close to these mining and quarrying works and their combined impact must be seen. Either local or migrant workers are employed here. I have reported from such mining sites in several states including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. The overwhelming impression has been one of deep regret at the serious harm one sees to the health of workers , to environment and quite often also the farming of nearby areas. All of this is avoidable to a large extent.

If this mining and quarrying had been developed keeping in view all important considerations of health, environment protection and welfare of workers as well as nearby villagers, then this sector could have become an important source of livelihood support . Unfortunately these considerations have been neglected resulting in such mining getting associated more with accentuation of water scarcity and ecological ruin, exploitation of workers and increasing problems for neighboring villagers.

One particular day I remember in this context is when I visited several villages located near stone quarrying sites in Mahoba district (Uttar Pradesh) and heard several farmers say that their farming is being ruined by the dust and water scarcity created by mining units and stone crushers. Several had been injured. On the way back we passed a mining site and were asked to stop. We as well others commuting on this road were asked to stop as dynamite blast to facilitate mining was about to take place and stone pieces could reach here at a furious place even though the road was some distance away. We were asked to take cover and I stood behind hind a car. After some time I could see some small stones flying around at some distance very furiously. If this had hit someone in an exposed part like head or face one shudders to think of the consequences. I kept thinking of the risk of injury faced by those who live in the shadow of such mining and all its dust as well.

Some of these problems have been documented also in the Human Development Report for Bundelkhand prepared under the Niti Ayog-UNDP Project on Human Development. This report has made several observations about the mining and quarrying sector (mainly stone and sand) in Bundelkhand region. Firstly it says that there are bonded labor type working conditions in these mines and quarries (or the attached crushers).
Secondly working conditions are poor and several unsafe and hazardous practices are followed. Accidents often take place and compensation payment is generally not given. Lung diseases, silicosis and other diseases have been a big problem for workers and their families. There is no risk-cover, no protective gear, no medical facilities. The police is not supportive and does not register cases , this report says. Thirdly child labor exists in mines and child workers also toil in unsafe conditions.

Fourthly mining is controlled by local elites who have followed harmful practices and damaged sustainability of mines and quarries. The entire work takes place in quasi-legal conditions with collusion of mafia and political bosses. There is hardly any adherence to environmental laws. Dynamite is frequently used and there is high risk from falling stones for nearby villagers.

Several kol tribal workers also toil in mining work. The report says that kols face exploitation and are forced into semi-bonded labor. Although this report does not comment specifically on the problems on women workers, it expresses concern about the general safety and security conditions of women. This report says that the general issues of safety and security for women are far worse in Bundelkhand as compared to the parent states and the neighboring regions.

These observations of the Human Development Report for Bundelkhand are of a serious nature and the authorities should take important steps for improving the situation with a sense of urgency. Earlier the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had sent a team to Patha area of Bundelkhand several years back which was headed by a senior (retired) police officer Chaman Lal who received widespread appreciation and acclaim as IG (border areas) in Punjab in the critical days of terrorism and subsequently joined the NHRC in an honorary position to help on the important issues of bonded labor and jails.

This writer too was a member of this team. The report prepared by this team had also mentioned several aspects of this system of exploitation and the existence of high-risk, hazardous conditions in mining and crushing units. Hence clearly there is enough evidence on the basis of which action against exploitative systems should be taken so that much-needed relief can come to the workers toiling in highly exploitative and hazardous conditions in the mines and quarries of Bundelkhand as well as other areas.

One important aspect is to extend special help to all workers or their families suffering from the dust-related disease of silicosis as orders of the Supreme Court have already resulted in provision for such help. Some organizations in Rajasthan like the MKSS have done good work in taking these benefits to people.

Secondly, at least at some places, experimental projects of stone mining that avoid health and environmental hazards and exploitation of workers should be launched. These should be in the form of small units of local workers including women who work on a small scale observing all precautions, avoiding use of heavy machines and dynamite. Lessons learnt in the course of such projects can be helpful in formulating proper policy.

The Bhiwani tragedy has highlighted in a glaring way that in remote stone mines the safety and environmental conditions still continue to be precarious. This tragedy should prompt a re-look at the existing measures to protect environment, safety and labour welfare all of which need big improvements and reforms at national level.

(The writer has written extensively on labour, safety and environmental issues.problems)

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