The Rise of ‘Widow Villages’ in Rajasthan

In rural areas of Rajasthan, thousands of men are dying due to developing a fatal disease, leaving their wives to pick up the pieces.

The Rise of 'Widow Villages' in Rajasthan f

"Even yet, we were unable to save him.”

In rural areas of Rajasthan, men ply their trade in the sandstone mines close to their villages.

However, they breathe in rock dust on a daily basis until they were eventually diagnosed with silicosis, a fatal lung disease.

Over time, the entire male population of Budhpura, Rajasthan, passed away as a result of the condition.

Today, the rural settlement is known as a ‘widow village’.

One resident named Kamlesh was 16 when she married Banwari, a worker at the local mines.

While he was in the mines, Kamlesh ran a household of six on a daily income of Rs. 80 (70p).

Things got tougher when Banwari was diagnosed with silicosis.

Kamlesh said: “He eventually quit working, and I had to start working for survival.

“My earnings went solely for his treatment but it wasn’t enough.

“We received government assistance of 100,000 rupees, but it was insufficient due to the exorbitant treatment costs. I now have a debt of more than 400,000 rupees. Even yet, we were unable to save him.”

Her experience is common to other ‘widow villages’ in Rajasthan districts, where hundreds of thousands of men are employed in poorly regulated and unsafe mines, leaving them vulnerable to silicosis and an early death.

Rajasthan accounts for approximately 98% of India’s production of sandstone. The state also has the most mining leases in the country and the largest geographical area covered by the mining sector.

While the exact number of people suffering from silicosis in Rajasthan is unknown, an audit report filed in the Rajasthan assembly in 2018 revealed a total of 7,959 silicosis cases diagnosed between January 2015 and February 2017.

In those two years, 449 people died of silicosis in five Rajasthani districts.

The Rajasthan government’s official silicosis portal says that there are over 48,000 registered silicosis patients, of which more than 31,000 are certified.

However, experts claim that this figure is much lower than the actual figure because a large number of patients go unnoticed or are wrongly detected.

Over 2.5 million are employed in mining in Rajasthan but only informally or without official documents.

This gives employers an excuse to disregard vital safety regulations and rules needed to protect workers’ health.

There are no scheduled operating hours or mining safety arrangements to limit workers’ exposure to crystalline silica dust, which can be found in rock, sand, quartz, concrete and other building materials, and is the cause of silicosis.

There is also no access to basic medical care.

Meanwhile, miners are paid less than the minimum guaranteed pay.

Rana Sengupta, CEO of the Mine Labour Protection Campaign, said:

“The mine owners don’t seem to care, the workers aren’t taken for medical check-ups as required by regulations, and safety equipment is a long way off.”

This has led to the average life expectancy of a miner in Rajasthan dropping from 60 to 40.

Rana added: “Things have gotten worse with current technology because the new machine emits a large amount of dust all at once.

“As you can see, the majority of women in villages near sandstone mines are widowed at a very young age.”

After the loss of their husbands, widows then have to undertake the same task as well as convince their children to do the same.

Pekham Basu, an assistant professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said:

“Most of these widows are forced to work after their husband’s death due to treatment debt.

“They leave their house after everyone else in the village leaves, so they arrive late at the site and are paid for half a day.

“They also all work and travel together because they feel more comfortable in a group because men dominate the workplace at mining sites. They seek protection in groups and numbers.”

The Rise of 'Widow Villages' in Rajasthan

Dankuwar, another widow, said she was aware of the “implications” of the mines but stated that she doesn’t have any other option.

She told The Telegraph: “My husband never wanted me to work, but he became bedridden following the diagnosis, so I had no choice.

“I had planned to keep my sons away from mine, but they have also joined. We live a life in which we work to kill ourselves.”

Policing and battling silicosis linked to Rajasthan’s mines are difficult tasks.

The central government’s Director General of Mines Safety (DGMS) is in charge of mine worker welfare, while state governments are in charge of mining allocation.

But these agencies have faced allegations of turning a blind eye to mines that do not submit a “Notice of Opening” and failing to carry out the relevant inspections, which would normally reveal what steps need to be taken by mine owners to ensure the health and safety of workers.

MK Devarajan, an ex-member of the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission, said:

“During my tenure, there were several instances where the DGMS failed to act despite repeated input from me.

“They are not aware of the total number of miners operating in the state and do not wish to be.”

“People in the central government aren’t serious or concerned about human rights; they simply don’t want to do anything. It is the DGMS’s responsibility to enforce, but it appears unconcerned.”

Another systematic flaw is that it does not fall under the scope of a single agency or ministry.

In October 2019, the state approved a policy that provides immediate financial support of Rs. 300,000 (£2,900) to silicosis patients and Rs. 200,000 (£1,900) to dependents as well as a monthly income of Rs. 1.5 million (£14,500) to widows.

However, it is flawed as the payments often arrive late.

As a result, recipients are forced to borrow money.

When the money eventually arrives, most of it is then spent paying off interest from the other loans.

Added to this, the support only lasts for up to a year, depending on the costs of treatment, while many valid applicants are rejected.

But according to experts, the biggest challenge in combating silicosis is that it is not classified as a criminal offence or an occupational ailment under the Mines Act of 1952 or the Workmen Compensation Act, but rather as a certified disease.

In addition, systematic mechanisms are in place to prevent compensation and accountability.

So until the government provides better support, ‘mine widows’ must continue to work in the mines to pay off their debts.

Dhiren is a journalism graduate with a passion for gaming, watching films and sports. He also enjoys cooking from time to time. His motto is to “Live life one day at a time.”

Images courtesy of Mine Labour Protection Campaign

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