Hafijul Molla’s hand involuntarily slips to the pocket of his scruffy shirt. He pats the pocket, probingly. Reassured finding his inhaler intact, he continues with his story. Molla, a resident of the Goaldaha village of the Minakhan Block, North 24 Parganas district is the secretary of the Silicosis Sramik Sangrami Mancha (SSSM).
The year was 2009. A severe cyclonic storm, Aila, had hit the West Bengal and Odisha coastline. Among the worst affected were the villages in deltaic Sunderbans. The saline waters of the intricate river network in the region had flooded numerous villages. The saline deposit left by the receding brackish flood-water rendered the farmlands in the region agriculturally unsuitable. According to Molla, “We were traditionally agriculturists. However, after Aila we had to look for other livelihood options. We were forced to migrate to work in stone crushing plants and that was the beginning of our misery.”
An endemic situation
According to the estimates of the SSSM, there are 205 reported cases of silicosis in the Dhuturdaga Gram Panchayat area of the Minakhan Block of the North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal. Molla stated, “26 people have lost their lives and around 60 are in highly critical situation. The villages of Goaldaha, Debitala and Dhuturdaga in our block are worst affected. There have been reported silicosis cases in the neighbouring blocks as well.”
He continued, “When we lost our livelihood after the Aila, we were forced to migrate. Most of the men from this area found employment in crusher plants in distant locations like Jamuria and Asansol (In Burdwan district). Most of us worked there for six to seven years before we realised that we were being inflicted by silicosis.”
The crusher plants where these villagers landed were mostly unregistered. Additionally, as most of them were first generation migrant workers new to the crusher industry, they were unaware of the risks associated with extended silica exposure. According to Shamin Ahmed, a lawyer who is legally aiding the SSSM, “Out of the 216 stone quarries in the district of Birbhum, only six are licensed. The stone crushing industry is highly hazardous and in our state, it is highly unregulated.”
The need for compensation and rehabilitation
Silicosis is a difficult disease to live with. Bankim Mondal, member, Silicosis Sangrami Mancha stated, “I lost my two sons to this disease. I am also suffering from it. I had to sell off all my land for the treatment of my sons. For patients in the final stages, oxygen support is a must.”
Molla added, “It is difficult for people inflicted with this disease to be engaged in physical work. We get breathless too fast. I earn whatever I can by ferrying items and I am heavily dependent on medication.” Most of the inflicted were the sole bread earners of their families and now live in deprivation. There is urgent need for alternate livelihood and rehabilitation for these families. Understanding the need for compensation, the villagers had approached the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) for compensation which had directed the state government to pay a compensation package of ` 4 lakh for each deceased patient of silicosis as the disease has been identified as an occupational lung disease. According to SSSM, only eight families have been compensated till date.
Molla stated, “We urge the state government to pay the compensation as directed by the NCHR. We have seen the West Bengal government declare a compensation package for deaths incurred by consumption of spurious alcohol. We need the compensation because we are unable to do any heavy work in this condition.”
The legal impasse
Villagers alleged that the governmental authorities are apathetic towards their condition. According to Molla, “The situation worsened after we moved court for compensation.” Nasiruddin Molla, another villager from Goaldaha who has also been suffering from silicosis informed BE, “I went to the NRS Hospital (Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College & Hospital - a government medical college and hospital) in Kolkata in 2014 and was formally diagnosed with silicosis. When I went back to the same hospital in November 20, 2018, the junior doctor who first inspected me in the outdoor department wrote silicosis in my prescription but later changed it after consulting his superior who had remarked that it would be unwise to diagnose me with silicosis as we had initiated a case.”
According to Shamin Ahmed, “We have got a favourable verdict in the case that was initiated by the villagers. The judgement was passed on October 3, 2018. The key lies in implementing it. The court has directed the West Bengal government to frame a Silicosis Rehabilitation Policy for treatment, compensation, rehabilitation and welfare for silicosis patients and their families taking note of the Haryana Silicosis Rehabilitation Policy. Secondly, the court directed the government to organise regular medical camps in the Goaldaha village.”
The villagers confirmed that a monthly medical camp has been initiated following the court order. But Ahmed pointed out, “The government is currently focusing only on treatment whereas the order emphasises equally treatment, compensation and rehabilitation. Compensation and rehabilitation is equally necessary to elevate the condition of these villagers.”
Speaking exclusively to BE, Sk. Kamrul Islam, Block Development Officer, Minakhan stated, “We have ensured that there is no new forced migration from our block to crusher plants. Additionally, villagers from the affected villages have been provided houses under the governmental schemes. The government’s appointed Silicosis Medical Detection
Board (SMDB) under the state government’s labour department is in charge of the matter. The block administration is yet to receive any specific directives from the SMDB.”