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Death in silicon alleys


For many, agate's a stone that heals. Not so, though, for artisans who cut and polish it in Gujarat's Khambat. Several are being struck down by silicosis.

The year 2003 was special for Anwar Hussain. A small-scale producer of artefacts fashioned from multi-coloured agate stones, Hussain had just been chosen by the government to receive a national award. His winning creation was a 64-kg Jamnagar stone shaped into a spectacular 5-kg bowl with nearly seven different colours and patterns. He knew his father Inayat Lalbhai, who had got the same award in 1988, would be proud of him. But his father didn't live to see his son bring home the award. Within a few months of the announcement, Inayat Lalbhai succumbed to a long and excruciating illness - silicosis.

A gate workers in Khambhat have been dying of silicosis for decades now. In fact, Hussain's grandfather, too, had died of silicosis and his mother has been diagnosed with this fatal illness. It's quite likely that the 37-year-old Hussain will meet the same fate as well.

The agate trade in Khambat, a coastal town in Gujarat, has been flourishing since the 1960s. The shiny, brightly coloured stones are shaped into beads for jewellery, religious and prayer items like rosaries and trishuls, or decorative household items, and are exported to the US, Europe, Hong Kong, Africa and other countries. The captivating stones in shades of blue, purple, red, yellow and green have dedicated buyers and many a believer will be found wearing rings made of agate because of its supposed powers of healing. Which is why business is booming. Between April 2012 and February 2013, $600 million (Rs 3, 255 crore) worth of these coloured stones were exported. It was $300 million (Rs 1, 473 crore) the previous year, which means that exports grew by over 95 per cent.

Rough stones come from across Gujarat, Maharashtra (where they're mined near Aurangabad, and Amravati), and even UP (Madhepur ). A lengthy process of mining, drilling and polishing makes a smooth agate bead. This procedure generates a cloud of mineral dust, mostly silica, which is what triggers silicosis, an illness similar to tuberculosis. Also dubbed 'grinder's asthma', it is caused by prolonged inhalation of silica dust.

"Working on the piece that won me the award, I have inhaled in six weeks the amount of silica dust one inhales over 10 years. It's killing me, but I have to earn a living and look after my family, " says Hussain.
Jagdish Patel of Vadodara-based People's Training and Research Centre (PTRC) has been working on occupational safety and health for over 20 years. In 2007, the NGO had identified nearly 200 cases of silicosis (of the 700 workers who allowed themselves to be tested). In 2011, a similar study was carried out by PTRC and Mumbai's Bhansali Trust, which surveyed 4, 570 residents of Khambhat including women and children. Of these, 43. 91 per cent had been working for five years or less, nearly 40 per cent reported sickness in the family, and as many as 73. 31 per cent were earning Rs 50 or less per day. This appeared to show that even though the industry may be deadly and pays poorly, it was employing new people every year.

Since 2005, 109 workers have died due to silicosis in Khambhat alone. The numbers will increase, activists believe. A major obstacle to change is the fact that the sector is highly unorganised. Most workers in Khambhat are unregistered. According to government figures, there are only six or seven units registered under the Factory's Act, and no more than 30 workers are employed in each. But Patel says about 10-15, 000 agate workers are employed in Khambhat. Many work out of their own homes while others work at their employers' residence. "Measures for eliminating the dust, like water sprays, dry air filtering and exhaust channels are absent, " Patel says. "And workers are too poor to even afford basic masks to cover their faces. "

He adds that even after a worker is diagnosed with silicosis, he continues working as there is no other source of income. Over 90 per cent of the workers have no other skill and are unable to rehabilitate themselves elsewhere. "Children join the industry as early as six years of age so education is out of the question, " says Patel.

Take the case of Kesrisinh Darbar. In an interview in 2011, he recounted that over a decade he had lost eight members of his family to silicosis. He lived in a house with three widows: his two sisters-in-law and his mother. Despite this, he continued to work at the agate unit. He died from silicosis in April 2011 when he was just 40.

The middlemen say they have no power or money to provide safety measures, the traders are only concerned with business, the owners turn a blind eye to all of this and the government is in denial. So where is relief likely to come from? "The Factories Act, 1948, has made silicosis a notifiable disease, but the act is applicable only to registered units in the organised sector, " Patel states. "In February last year, the Gems and Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC) offered to provide the Gujarat government a piece of land to construct a common facility away from residential areas which would help curb the disease. But that was the last one heard of it. "

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been informed and has even asked the state government to amend the law. Says Gujarat's health minister Nitin Patel: "The state government has planned certain programmes for the welfare of agate workers. But we are currently reviewing the situation in Khambhat and nearby areas to ascertain the level of silicosis prevalent and to analyse if cases of silicosis have increased or decreased over the years. Based on that information, we will implement the programmes shortly. "

Sadly, that might not be enough for many in this small town by the Arabian Sea. For them, as it is with Anwar Hussain, there's little hope and little time.

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