Rajasthan: when fathers die of silicosis children are forced to replace them
by Alessandra De Poli

The north-western Indian state reported more than 48,000 cases from prolonged inhalation of silica dust in the past few years. Although the state government has created compensation programmes for affected families, many obstacles remain, above all the many illegal mines.

Milan (AsiaNews) – It’s called it “widows’ village” because at least 40 women residents have lost their husbands to silicosis after working for a lifetime in mines. Now, in order to continue to support the family, the children are forced to take the place of the fathers.

Gandero ki Dhani, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, is part of a group of villages located on a sandstone mining belt. Between 2018 and January 2023, 11,462 cases of silicosis were reported in Jodhpur district alone, while official state data puts the overall count at 48,448.

Called "Patthar ki bimari", the stone disease, silicosis affects the lungs from exposure to crystalline silica dust; when inhaled for a prolonged time, it causes small lesions in the lungs that in most cases lead to premature death, often before the age of 40.

The problem has long been known in India; in fact, in 2019, Rajasthan introduced a policy on pneumoconiosis (interstitial lung disease caused by the inhalation of harmful dust); this required the registration of all mines, treatment for sick workers, and compensation for families who lost a relative to silicosis.

Rajasthan is the Indian state with the highest number of mining leases, over 33,000 licenses, most of them for sandstone, many of them operate illegally, unmonitored by the government and without safety provisions for workers. A report in 2014 said that at least 12,000 mines operated in Jodhpur alone.

Some can be quarries as small as 30 by 60 metres with five to eight employees, earning 30-50 rupees per day (for men) and 15-30 rupees (for women). In both cases, the pay is just a few US cents.

Since 2019, the state government has paid out 300,000 rupees (around US$ 3,675) to patients suffering from silicosis and another 200,000 (US$ 2,450) to families when they lost a member, while widows are given a disability pension of 1,500 rupees (US$ 18) per month.

To get state benefits, applicants must present a medical certificate attesting to the disease. Those who do receive compensation say it is too low and not everyone can get it.

In some cases, workers are not aware of government programmes; in others, workers wear down their fingertips to the point that it is no longer possible to collect their prints and so they cannot prove their identity.

This is why, despite the risks, miners’ children follow in their parents’ footsteps, hoping that their younger sisters and brothers can continue to study. Often children as young as 11 skip classes to work in the mine or work in the afternoon after school. But there is no data about them.

“There are hardly any first information reports to the police done on this issue,” said Priyank Kanoongo, chairman of the National Commission for the Protection of Children's Rights, speaking to IndiaSpend. “Foreign companies want their products to be child labour-free but no industry here wants to be audited.”

Estimates by the non-profit Mine Labour Protection Camp Trust indicate that at least 375,000 children are involved in mining work in Rajasthan, with twice as many girls as boys.

Local government efforts continue. To this end, educational camps will be organised across Rajasthan before the end of the month. Yet, problems persist mainly due to illegal mines, which state officials admitted are numerous.

Out-of-state workers have access to rehabilitation and financial assistance; but as it is often the case, if they are hired informally and not recognised by mine owners, they are not entitled to any compensation if they contract silicosis.