Mines, misery and a miracle tree

Published: April 1, 2012

(Top) Laying down their lives: The Khejri tree is firmly embedded in the mythology of Rajasthan. (Right) Sins of the fathers: Both father and daughter suffer from silicosis, an incurable lung condition. (Bottom) The King of the Desert: The Khejri tree.

(Top) Fighting for their rights: mine workers hold a protest camp demanding better working conditions. (Bottom) Fuelling India’s economy: An open cast mine in Rajasthan. (Top) Fighting for their rights: mine workers hold a protest camp demanding better working conditions. (Bottom) Fuelling India’s economy: An open cast mine in Rajasthan. (Top) Laying down their lives: The Khejri tree is firmly embedded in the mythology of Rajasthan. (Right) Sins of the fathers: Both father and daughter suffer from silicosis, an incurable lung condition. (Bottom) The King of the Desert: The Khejri tree. (Top) Laying down their lives: The Khejri tree is firmly embedded in the mythology of Rajasthan. (Right) Sins of the fathers: Both father and daughter suffer from silicosis, an incurable lung condition. (Bottom) The King of the Desert: The Khejri tree. (Top) Laying down their lives: The Khejri tree is firmly embedded in the mythology of Rajasthan. (Right) Sins of the fathers: Both father and daughter suffer from silicosis, an incurable lung condition. (Bottom) The King of the Desert: The Khejri tree.

If India is shining, it’s in no small part due to people like 38-year-old Ranjeet Mehta. Mehta lives in a small village called Sursagar, some 154 km from the city of Jodhpur in the Indian state of Rajasthan. He spends his days in the claustrophobic mines that dot this state, digging out the minerals that fuel India’s industry.

But while the fruits of his labours enrich the country, his life has only changed for the worse. “I work in mines full of precious minerals, but I can’t even afford to feed my children,” says a gloomy Mehta as he stands flanked by his eleven children and three wives. “My children will never go to school. They, like us, can only go look forward to working for the mine owners.” The owners say they are like our godparents, but they have never paid us enough to improve our lives, he adds.

Mining is one of the major sources of income for the 66 million people who call Rajasthan home, and there are some 11,000 mines in this state alone. Drawn by the prospect of regular work, thousands of people in and around Rajasthan have migrated to Jodhpur, hoping to earn a living by working in the mines. But in a situation where the supply of workers far outstrips demand, all the power lies with the mine owners.

According to labour rights groups, miners work an average of twelve hours a day in extremely dangerous conditions, sometimes even without access to drinking water and basic equipment like boots and helmets.

In addition to the risk of injury, these workers also face the risk of contracting silicosis, an incurable and potentially fatal lung condition caused by years of breathing in silica dust — an unavoidable consequence of drilling into sandstone.

Unfortunately for the workers, silicosis is hard to diagnose with the kind of medical equipment available in the state. “Most patients end up being diagnosed with tuberculosis,” says Dr Ramesh Singh who works with a local NGO. “The reason for this is that the symptoms of silicosis are exactly the same as those of TB,” he says. This ambiguity means that those suffering from silicosis face an uphill task in getting compensation for their condition, and have to take loans from the mine owners in order to pay for treatment.

The result is that entire generations are then forced to work in the mines in order to pay off family debts, thus perpetuating the vicious circle.

Several activists and NGOs have taken up the fight to get workers their due compensation. Gravis, a Jodhpur-based NGO has filed several suits on behalf of the workers, demanding that silicosis be recognised as an occupational disease related to working in the mines. Several protests have also been held demanding compensation from the state and mine owners, but the response from the Rajasthan government has been sluggish at best.

“The state government is in no mood to recognise silicosis as a disease caused by the working conditions in the mines,” complains silicosis patient Omar Osmani. “Their apathy is killing hundreds of labourers,” he claims.

According to Indian Supreme Court advocate Ritwick Dutta, even the legal system is stacked against the workers. “A paradigm shift is needed to amend laws to provide justice to labourers in India,” he says. “The current laws only protect the rights of mine owners and exist to promote their interests.”

Around 930 cases filed by or on behalf of labourers are pending with various courts in Jodhpur alone, claims Dr Radhesham of Gravis Hospital in Jodhpur district’s Tinwari village. But despite protests and various promises, the pleas of the workers fall on deaf ears.

“Rajasthan’s government has only paid INR100,000 to the families of 22 labourers who lost their lives due to silicosis,” he says. This is despite the fact that India’s national human rights commission fixed a compensation of INR300,000 for the families of silicosis victims.

Yet despite the harsh conditions, there seems to be no shortage of labourers willing to risk their lives and health in the mines. Much of this is due to the devastating effects that successive droughts have had on this desert region’s fragile ecosystem. “People in southern Rajasthan can no longer make ends meet through herding goats, camels and cows,” says Sansthan, a local villager. “The poorer families do not even dare to rear animals simply because they cannot find pastures for them.”

But even in the best of times, the water situation in Rajasthan remains dire. Except for a very few areas, the groundwater is saline, but luckier villages can access water from the Indira Gandhi canal once every three days at a cost of Rs1,000 an hour. Others use community tubewells, while the less fortunate are forced to rely solely on rain-fed agriculture.

“The lack of water is a huge stumbling block in this wasteland,” says Dr Satish Lodha, a scientist who specialises in plant pathology. The irony is that tree plantation is one of the only means for the villagers to combat desertification, but large-scale plantation is only possible if enough water is available. This means that locals have to turn to age-old methods, such as planting Khejri trees. Known as the ‘King of the Desert’, this drought-resistant tree is looked at with a near-religious reverence by the locals.

In 1730, a prince of Marwar sent his soldiers to cut down these trees in order to build a fort. Horrified, the local villagers wrapped themselves around the trees in order to prevent the wholesale felling of the Khejris. Legend has it that over 363 villagers were cut in half before the prince’s men finally gave up.

“The person who cuts down a Khejri tree is considered the greatest kind of sinner,” says local resident Beni Ram Beniwal. “If a person has to cut down a Khejri tree, he has to plant two new saplings in its place and donate grain and food to the community to compensate for the loss.”

As with many local traditions, there is almost always a practical basis for long-held beliefs. The Khejri tree is not only drought resistant, but also acts as a natural barrier to desertification and possesses a variety of medicinal properties.

Still, the scale of the problem is such that traditional methods may no longer be able to stem the tide. Professor SM Monhot of the School of Desert Sciences warns that “local struggles for water conservation have yet to overcome the problem of water scarcity.” Ultimately, without a major effort from the Indian government, the marginalised resident of Rajasthan will have no choice but to turn to the tender mercies of the mine owners.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 1st, 2012.

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