Many hills were flattened and spaces were carved out for the making of the capital city of New Delhi. Behind the grandeur of the city lie the heartbreaking stories of the people who have helped in building it.
Lal Kuan is a small urban village near the Mehrauli-Badarpur Road. It had been an active mining and quarrying area with a large number of stone crushers that have helped in building of Delhi. All the crushing and mining operations came to a halt in 1992 by a Supreme Court order. This judgement though reduced the pollution level of Delhi, its ambiguous position on the issue of occupational health hazards made the lives of the poor workers more vulnerable.
The disease and the crisis
Today, Lal Kuan is the home of former mine workers and stone crushers ailing from silicosis. It is one of the oldest known occupational diseases caused by the inhalation of particles of silica, mostly from quartz in rocks, sand and similar toxic substances. It is a progressive disease that belongs to a group of lung disorders called pneumoconiosis. At least, 3,000 residents have died in the last 13 years from silicosis, tuberculosis and other breathing ailments in the area.
S A Azad of People’s Rights and Social Research (PRASAR), an NGO, sensed unprecedented occurrence of death and ill health from respiratory diseases among the residents of the Lal Kuan area. From then on, PRASAR is working in the field of occupational health and fighting for compensation, medical benefits and rehabilitation of silicosis victims of Lal Kuan. It has records of 16 confirmed deaths due to silicosis in Lal Kuan area from Government hospitals.
According to the villagers of the Lal Kuan area, "When mining and crushing activities were on, everything in Lal Kuan used to be covered by a thick layer of dust." Most of the victims are migrant workers who have come in search of livelihood. Panni Ram, 60 have stayed in the area from the time his father had shifted here. Since his childhood he has worked in the stone-crushing units. Both of his parents have died of respiratory problems. Now, both he and his wife are suffering from silicosis. This is the story of approximately all the households of Lal Kuan.
Toxics Link has facilitated the intervention of PRASAR for silicosis in Lal Kuan area from the very beginning. When the Central and State Governments remained silent to the repeated petitions, Toxics Link and PRASAR joined hands to form the Khaan Mazdoor Adhikaar Manch. One of the first things this group did was to petition the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and demand compensation and rehabilitation for those affected by silicosis. The NHRC directed that a copy of the complaint be sent to the Labour Ministry and Delhi government to look into the allegations contained and to submit an Action Taken Report within four weeks.
The major break-through came in October 24, 2005 when the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit convened a meeting in Delhi Secretariat to discuss the prevalence of silicosis in the Lal Kuan area. The meeting was attended by the Health Minister of Govt. of Delhi, Food Minister, Principal Secretary (Health and Family Welfare), Director Social Welfare, and Director Health Services (DHS). Satish Sinha of Toxics Link and Azad along with the victims were also present in the meeting to explain the plight of the silicosis sufferers.
In the meeting, Chief Minister asked the officials to find a long-term rehabilitation plan for the silicosis victims. To meet it, the following demands of the people of the area were agreed on in the meeting:
A multi purpose hospital for the treatment of occupational diseases will be built at Tajpur near Lal Kuan;
A medical team consisting of occupational health experts should immediately conduct clinical survey of the affected persons in Lal Kuan area;
The Social Welfare Department have been asked to coordinate physical survey of the affected people;
The Social Welfare Department and the Health Department will also assist for alternative livelihood opportunities for the citizens of Lal Kuan.
After the meeting with the Chief Minister, mobile medical vans are now visiting for four days a week. It is distributing free medicines for silicosis and other respiratory and occupational diseases. The building of the hospital at Tajpur with X-ray facility needed for the detection of silicosis is almost complete.
The survey of the medical team is complete. A short report on the health survey has also been submitted to the Delhi government. The health survey results show that, about 68 per cent of the people surveyed suffer from silicosis, silico-tuberculosis and tuberculosis. A large percentage of people also suffer from hearing loss and malnutrition. The survey stressed on the need for continued surveillance of the health of the people and a further comprehensive study on the health of Lal Kuan victims.
The Social Welfare Department has also started its physical survey to bring the silicosis victims into Antyodaya scheme and granting of pensions.
A new light
This success has drafted a new model for the abatement of occupational hazards. The story has also renewed the media interest on occupational hazards and triggered the fact that the occupational safety rules need to be reviewed and implemented strongly across the country.
The most significant effect of the meeting with the Chief Minister has been on the minds of the inhabitants of Lal Kuan. It has driven away the feeling of hopelessness from them and has instead instilled sense of empowerment among the people giving them a new zeal to look forward to life.