ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Breath of Death

Occupational diseases like silicosis have been neglected for too long.

It is a disease that is a silent killer. An estimated 3 to 10 million workers in India are affected by it. Yet, it is not treated with the kind of attention it deserves. The recent decision of a labour court in Odisha to award compensation to 16 families who had lost their main bread earner to silicosis, a silent and much underestimated killer disease, has exposed the dark underside of unregulated and hazardous mining and industries. The 16 men, from Madarangajodi village in Keonjhar district, who died had worked in a unit that ground pyrophyllite into powder. In the process, they were inhaling silica dust without being aware of the consequences. Over time, their lungs collapsed and the men died, as silicosis is incurable. They left behind what was called, a “village of widows.” Only when a local organisation moved the National Human Rights Commission was the matter investigated. It was esta­blished that these men had died of silicosis. They need not have died if the outfit where they worked had taken simple precautionary measures such as giving them safety gear and using processes that minimised generation of silica dust. The court has ordered the Odisha government to pay the families₹46 lakh as compensation.

The ruling was made possible because of an important Supreme Court judgment in 2016 in a case involving 238 workers who died of silicosis after working for more than 10 years in quartz-crushing factories in Godhra and Balasinor in Gujarat. These men were from tribal villages in Alirajpur, Jhabua and Dhar districts of Madhya Pradesh. Like the men in Odisha, they too became ill as initially, silicosis is asymptomatic. The dust particles are odourless. So you are not aware that you are inhaling something that will eventually kill you. Once again, it took a non-governmental organisation to intervene on their behalf and take the matter up to the highest court. The apex court’s ruling was strong and unambiguous. Not only did it order the Gujarat government to pay₹7.14 crore as compensation to the next of kin of the 238 workers who had died but also ordered the Madhya Pradesh government to rehabilitate 304 workers who survived but were ailing.

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Updated On : 25th Aug, 2017
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