Meghalaya mining tragedy lessons go unheeded in MP as labourers face death and disease in quest for diamonds

  • No lessons seem to have been learnt from the Meghalaya coal mine tragedy

  • Illegal diamond mining coupled with lack of awareness and social security is also leading to a high illiteracy rate

  • Labourers working in the only State-operated mine fare no better

Panna/Bhopal: No lessons seem to have been learnt from the Meghalaya coal mine tragedy. Even as nearly 20 died in separate incidents over the past few weeks while illegally mining coal in the northeastern state, similar operations — for coal’s sparkling derivative — continue to endanger lives in Madhya Pradesh.

Manor, a small village 15 kilometres from the district headquarters of Panna, India’s only diamond-producing region, bears witness to the heavy price paid for mining the coveted stones. On entering the village, one would be hard-pressed to find a man above the age of 45. Yousuf Beg, an activist with Prithvi Trust and a resident of Panna, said Manor is called the village of widows.

 Meghalaya mining tragedy lessons go unheeded in MP as labourers face death and disease in quest for diamonds

Mine workers at Panna's Kalyanpur village. Image courtesy: Manish Chandra Mishra

Last year, Shyamiya Gond, Pyarelal Gond and Sukhnandi Gond of the nearby Bador village, Ram Das from Gadhi village, and Balram Singh, Kishor Singh and Lal Singh from Madaiyan died while mining for diamonds. Local activists said they had been suffering from silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust.

They aren’t the only casualties: when villagers begin remembering departed loved ones, the toll mounts steadily. However, as per government data, only four miners succumbed to silicosis, as they didn’t get proper treatment in hospital.

The dark side of diamonds

Manor is just one example of the damage illegal mining has caused in Panna. This region has India’s only mechanised diamond mine at Majhgawan, operated by the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC). In the 2017-2018 financial year, around 40,000 diamonds were produced from this mine where over 10,000 miners are employed.

Apart from this, the government or local administration leases out 8 by 8 metre plots of private or revenue land to prospective miners in the rest of the district. While these mines are legal, thousands more are likely illegally operating on forestland. But putting aside the legalities, labourers at private mines bear the brunt of low wages, lack of safety equipment and are burdened by debt.

Local activist Ravi Kant Patha, said, “Contractors employ labourers on a commission basis to avoid paying them daily. If a team finds diamonds, the contractor or head of the illegal mine gives the miners a share. In the absence of worthwhile employment opportunities, these labourers have no option but to work for 12 to 14 hours for days on end without wages. That’s how they fall in the debt trap.”

Earlier, mining would be done only during the monsoon, as a lot of water is needed to wash the diamonds. However, these days, labourers have to around the year, and make use of water from borewells for the washing. Workers need to dig open pits and collect small stones, and later, wash them twice or thrice to remove all the soil and clay. During the digging, they end up inhaling copious amounts of silica through the dust, and contract silicosis.

Locals from several villages in this region are facing serious health issues: In some, almost all men suffer from TB or silicosis; in others, most women are anemic; and in all, underweight children are the norm. Beg lamented, “It’s not just the miners; even their families are in a perilous situation. Recently, we got admitted to hospital a number of underweight children from the families of miners.”

Buried under government apathy

Illegal diamond mining coupled with lack of awareness and social security is also leading to a high illiteracy rate. Many labourers bring their children to the mining sites, and as a result, the kids miss school.

According to data from the 2011 census, the literacy rate of Manor village was 49.88 percent, significantly lower than Madhya Pradesh's literacy rate of 69.32 percent. Pathak laid the blame for this sorry situation squarely on diamond and sandstone mining. “The problem of unemployment in this region is humongous. Hence, most villagers head to the mines, illegal or legal, work long hours without safety equipment and subsequently fall prey to illness,” he said.

While the government provides compensation for registered miners suffering from silicosis, Pathak alleged that the process of determining silicosis patients is flawed. He said, “Compensation was released for only four labourers last year. There may be over 500 others in the district who suffer from silicosis.”

A labourer at a mining site near Panna district. Image courtesy: Manish Chandra Mishra

A labourer at a mining site near Panna district. Image courtesy: Manish Chandra Mishra

However, the district administration claimed it has identified over 100 labourers, and the process of providing monthly compensation has already begun. But activists ask: What about the unregistered thousands who work in illegal mines?

These mine contractors are so powerful that labourers are afraid of speaking up. One labourer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the contractor pays him daily, but many others are debt-ridden.

Those working in the only State-operated mine fare no better. They lack social security and basic amenities, including safety equipment. However, the NDMC, in its annual report claimed it provides proper safety equipment to labourers and it has well-equipped hospitals with medical teams available around the clock.

Rakesh Malviya, a Bhopal-based social activist who visited the diamond mines of Panna recently, said, “The socio-economic condition of these families is so bad that they are forced to work for hours without eating. I have seen pregnant women working in those mines without stopping for sustenance. Migration is another problem in the region. Those unable to make ends meet through mining are leaving their hometowns for Delhi and Bhopal.”

‘Healthcare initiatives alone not enough’

Social researcher Amulya Nidhi, who conducted a case study for Jan Swasthya Abhiyan in Madhya Pradesh, said, “Recent estimates from India suggest over three million workers are exposed to silica dust, and another 8.5 million working on construction sites are exposed to quartz dust. According to government data, around 8,000 people are suffering from silicosis in Madhya Pradesh. In pursuance of a Supreme Court order, in 2010 the National Human Rights Commission passed an order asking the Madhya Pradesh government to rehabilitate the ailing.”

On high levels of anemia among women and children, District Chief Medical and Health Officer Dr LK Tiwari said, “We are taking a proactive approach to eliminate the health problems faced by women. There is enough awareness; the real problem is poverty and unemployment. The health department is undertaking several initiatives such as regular check-ups for anemia, and a Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre to combat chronic malnutrition. We have also launched a dedicated programme for silicosis patients, who are examined by nodal officer Dr DK Gupta every Tuesday at the district hospital. We have provided cards to all patients so that they can avail of free treatment."

“We are providing the requisite healthcare, but precautionary measures are necessary to protect labourers from disease. The mining department gives a lease to private companies. At the time of agreement, the government should require strict safety norms, in addition to routine check-ups organised by the companies.” Panna collector Manoj Khatri declined to comment upon the reports of illegal mining. It seems breaking the local contractors' stranglehold will be no easy task for the authorities.

Manish Chandra Mishra is a Bhopal-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com

Updated Date: Jan 20, 2019 11:54:48 IST