SHABQADAR: Ashraf Khan looks forlorn as he and his co-workers offer prayers at the funeral of a former colleague in Shabqadar. His eyes are dry but the sadness peers through.
Ashraf says he used to work as a labourer with the recently deceased Ayaz Khan at a stone crushing factory in Shabqadar.
Ayaz, Ashraf says, was the tenth colleague he had lost in recent years due to health complications arising as a result of the dust spewed by stone crushing machines.
“If the government fails to protect labourers, more such deaths can be expected in the locality,” Ashraf said as he coughed. He too is showing early symptoms of a dry cough and asthma.
But for people like Ashraf and Ayaz, there is no other option but to accept work which may ultimately claim their life.
“As labourers, we have no other way [to earn a living] except to crush stones in factories,” he says helplessly, adding that labourers are not the only victims of the dust.
Around a decade ago, Ashraf said that local resident Mukaram Khan had set up a stone crushing factory in the small village of Khwajawas Kor. While it provided jobs to unemployed youngsters in the area, people soon realised that the dust created by crushing stones was dangerous to their health. By the end of the first year, it had claimed the life of Yusaf Khan, a relative of the factory owner.
“Although we were all aware of the dangers, we continued to work at the factory until it was shut down by the owner,” Ayaz’s father Sher Nabi told The Express Tribune, adding that since the factory closed down, they have been looking for alternative work opportunities.
Ehsan Khan, a labourer from Buner in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) who was crushing stones without any safety equipment at one of the factories located on the main Mohmand-Shabqadar road near Dhand Kali in the Pandyali Tehsil, said that they have no choice but to opt for the paycheck over his health.
“I know the dust is harmful to my health, but we have to make money to feed our families,” he said, adding, that in the absence of any proper safety equipment they resort to tying a wet cloth around their nose and mouth to stop inhaling the dust.
“But we can feel the dust getting into our lungs. “
Another labourer revealed that around five workers from his village in Pandyali have so far died from inhaling the dust while three other labourers hailing from Aqrab Dag have suffered similar fates.
Talking about the adverse health effects of stone crushing factories, social worker Ziaullah told The Express Tribune that the dust from the factories had claimed the lives of two brothers, Khalid Khan and Walid Khan. Since they were the main breadwinners of their respective families, their children have been left at the mercy of others.
Others who had perished quite young included 30-year-old Rashid Khan, 28-year-old Sajid Khan, 30-year-old Muhib Ali, 40-year-old Daud Khan, 25-year-old Romas Khan, Hussain Khan, Ajab Khan and Muntazir.
“They [victims] were all poor who used to first operate horse-driven carts and later drove rickshaws. After their death, though, their children starving since the government has no [compensation] plan for their family,” he added.
A shortage of raw material and the unreliable supply of power has forced several stone-crushing plants in Shabqadar to close down. But Mohmand Agency still boasts around 100 stone-crushing factories and visitors are greeted with a cloud of dust emanating from these factories.
An official of the political administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, disclosed that the political administration in Mohmand had at one point shut all such factories down.
However, these units were later allowed to restart work on the surety that they will follow all environmental and labour laws, providing workers with safety gear and health facilities.
“They even bought ambulances and other equipment,” the political administration official said, adding that the owner of every mine in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) is bound to obey the law.
However, he pointed out that implementation of laws was completely different matter altogether since the authorities have been unable to make factories comply with the laws.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2018.