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Stone dust in lungs, cutters wait for aid

- Nine die of silicosis in a year, 150 under treatment

Hasina Bibi looked dazed as she stood with her four children in front of her thatched hut.

Her eldest child is a five-year-old girl, the youngest is a boy of eight months.

Recently, Hasina lost her husband Abul Paik, aged around 30, to silicosis — a disease caused by constant exposure to stone dust (silica) pollution. He used to work as a labourer at a stone-crushing unit in Raniganj, near Asansol.

But Abul’s death is a rule rather than an exception in areas such as Goaldaha and Debitala villages in Minakhan, on the northern fringes of Calcutta.

Nine persons, including Abul, who went to work at stone-crushing factories, have lost their lives in a year.

About 150 have been diagnosed with silicosis and the list is increasing every day.

Many suffering from the disease are said to be critical and experts feel many may suffer Abul’s fate.

Those suffering from the disease have all worked in stone-crushing units in Raniganj and Asansol areas.

Driven by acute poverty — the area is two-crop (two crops are produced in a year) and the villagers are poor -— more than 200 people from Goaldaha and Debitala villages have migrated to Asansol and Raniganj areas, 250km away from Minakhan, to work at stone-crushing units.

Although based on a complaint lodged by a non-profit organisation, Sabujar Avijan, several senior officers of the state and the district had passed a series of orders for providing help to the affected Minakhan people “in accordance to Supreme Court order” but nothing has happened.

In 1996, the Supreme Court had awarded a compensation of Rs 1 lakh to persons who had died of silicosis pollution and about Rs 50,000 to the affected people apart from free medical support. All the affected persons had worked in a stone-crushing factory at Chichurgeria in Jhargram, West Midnapore.

“In 1996, the Supreme Court had made it clear that the amount should not be taken as a precedence because the upper limit mentioned in the Workmen Compensation Act was Rs 1 lakh then. Now, the compensation should be much more as the upper limit has increased to Rs 10 lakh,” said Naba Dutta of the Nagarik Mancha that fought the silicosis case in the Supreme Court in 1996.

The Workmen Compensation Act, 1923, was amended many times with the “occupational hazards” clause included in 1967. According to the Act, in case of death, maximum compensation payable now is Rs 10 lakh.

Migration from the villages started in 2002-03 but the rate accelerated after Cyclone Aila that wreaked havoc in Minakhan along with other parts in south Bengal in 2009.

But some Minakhan residents returned last year.

Most of them could not work anymore as they suffered from acute respiratory distress, breathlessness, fever and tuberculosis-like symptoms. Once the deaths started occurring, people panicked.

Most of the deceased and those suffering are between 20 and 40 years.

Families of the afflicted people are being forced to sell off whatever little property or belongings they have and run from pillar to post for treatment. The administration has provided no help.

“We are used to working 10 hours or more every day in a cloud of stone dust. Few people use protection. After working for few months, everyone was constantly coughing and suffering from breathlessness after the slightest physical strain and bouts of fever. Finally, I came back home late last year,” said Sarajit Mondal, 28, who has silicosis. His brother Biswajit and father Bankim, who also worked in stone-crushing units, are suffering from silicosis as well.

The brothers were taken to Vellore Christian Medical College and their reports read: “Diagnosis-occupation lung disease, silicosis.”

State hospitals such as SSKM have diagnosed many others from the two villages with either silicosis or tuberculosis. The symptoms of both the diseases are similar.

According to experts, any physician without first-hand experience of silicosis may make a mistake in diagnosis.

“Silicosis is perhaps the deadliest form of occupational lung disease triggered from dust. The disease progresses even after stoppage of exposure to silica pollution, which happens in stone-crushing units or marble factories. There is virtually no cure to silicosis,” said Aloke Gopal Ghoshal, a pulmonologist and the director of the National Allergy, Asthma and Bronchitis Institute (NAABI) in Calcutta.

Both silicosis and tuberculosis can affect a person together, making his condition more serious. Many Minakhan residents, including Sarajit, suffer from silico tuberculosis.

The death certificate of Abul Paik stated “silico tuberculosis” as the cause, as did the death certificate of Mujaffar Mollah who died last November.

Ghoshal confirmed that silico tuberculosis is more severe than silicosis.

“The doctor has advised me to take medicines for tuberculosis,” said Alam Molla. His test report from a city-based diagnostic laboratory mentions “silico tuberculosis”.

“It’s most unfortunate that there is virtually no government action or help to save these people or punish the stone-crushing units concerned,” said former chief law officer of the state pollution control board, Biswajit Mukherjee.

He visited the villages several times to hand over some relief on behalf of Sabujer Avijan. Mukherjee has complained to various government departments and also moved the high court demanding compensation for victims and action against the stone-crushing units.

“Once the complaint was lodged, senior officials of the state labour and environment departments as well as the district magistrate of Burdwan passed orders to act according to the Supreme Court order. But nothing happened,” Mukherjee said.

He mentioned three stone-crushing units in his petition to the high court: Lakshmi Stone Factory in Raniganj, Tarama Minerals Factory in Jamuria and Bal Krishna Factory in Kulti (all in Burdwan).

Minakhan residents said there were 15 such units, five of which had employed villagers from the area.

“I have no idea or information about anyone suffering or having died after working in the factory. The factory has been closed for quite some time,” said Sujit Shah, proprietor of Lakshmi Stone Factory.