Dossier People’s struggles on Urban and Energy related issues

The Silent Killer: Agate Workers in Khambat Fight against Silicosis

, by Intercultural Resources , GEORGE PT

Agate stones
Photos by PT George

On September 23, 2012, Samuben Darbar became the latest victim to succumb to silicosis, a chronic occupational disease that has become a major health hazard to thousands of agate workers. Samuben didn’t work in the agate industry, but her husband operated a small unit in front of their house in Shakarpur village in Khambat, Gujarat in western India. Samuben is one of several hundred people who have died in Khambat (Cambey), a region known for its world-famous gemstone bead industry. Khambat has one of the oldest and largest agate bead-making industries in the world. There are no official figures on how many have died of this dreaded disease. In the absence of clear records, it is very difficult to point out exactly how many have been really affected and how many have died from silicosis in this region.

What is an Agate?

An agate is a fibrous quartz crystal containing silicon dioxide, usually found in the rocky mountains formed from volcanoes. Agates are semi-precious gemstones found in a variety of forms, ranging from translucent to transparent, and they come in different colors, ranging from milky to grayish.

Each agate is unique and varies from other precious gemstones. People around the world have attributed various metaphysical properties to agates. It is believed that these semi-precious stones can enhance life and prevent or help cure many physical, mental or psychological disorders. Some even believe that agates can balance different energies in our body. Because of these metaphysical properties, agates have been heavily mined, cut, ground and polished into beads of all sizes and shapes. For thousands of years, India has been the primary exporter of agates to the rest of the world and continues in this role even now.

About Khambat (Cambey), Gujarat

Khambat or Cambey (in the western Indian state of Gujarat), is a bustling business town lying on the coast the Arabian Sea. The major occupation of people here has been the manufacturing and trading of agate gem stones. Hundreds of small industrial units in the Khambat region employ thousands of workers who are engaged in cutting, drying, grinding and polishing agates. The finished agate stones are used for making prayer beads, handicrafts, jewelry and trinkets. Every year, the domestic trade and international export of agate beads generates millions of dollars in business.

Recently, the region has gained notoriety for a large number of deaths of agate workers due to silicosis. In India, an estimated 3 million workers employed in various types of mines, stone industries, construction sites and so on, are occupationally exposed to silica dust and are in extreme danger of being severely affected by silicosis. An occupational lung disease, silicosis is caused by continuous inhalation of crystalline silica dust over a long period of time. Silicosis is not a new disease; it has been around for several centuries and is said to be one of the oldest occupational diseases that humanity has known. Once a patient is affected, the disease is incurable, and it leads to pulmonary tuberculosis due to severe injuries in the lungs. However, preventive measures at the workplace can be taken to avoid this dreaded disease.

Problems Faced by the Agate Industry

In Khambat, stone bead-making is a cottage and household industrial activity, usually carried out in the premises of a house. The term “small-scale industry” may conjure up visions of a self-sufficient, self-employed family unit, where rough agate stones are transformed into beautiful, smooth gems. But in reality, the agate industry in Khambat is controlled by a few individuals who own and operate their businesses from various households.

Situation of Agate Workers

In Khambat, most of the agate workers are friends and relatives of the owners of the units. On average, a household unit is composed of 10 to 12 workers. Some large units have 30-40 workers who dry, cut, grind and polish gemstones that are exported to international markets in the US and Europe. Some of the major issues that afflict the agate industry are poverty, illness, lack of proper medical diagnosis and treatment, bonded labour, child labour, low wages, malnutrition, lack of government supervision and compensation for accidents or death.

According to Jagdish Patel - a senior activist and director of Peoples Training and Research Centre (PTRC), who has been working on occupational safety and health - most of the workers engaged in the agate industry are either close or distant relatives of the owner or have known each other over a long period of time. Because of these close family and social ties, the employers usually take advantage of the workers. As such, the workers are exploited, frequently put in long hours at work and are mostly underpaid.

Non-Licensed Small-scale Units

A large majority of the small-scale units in the agate industry are not licensed and operate outside the purview of industrial labour laws. The lack of government supervision of the working conditions of these units and the absence of proper protective gears and mechanized tools expose agate workers to a variety of pollution-related health problems, occupational hazards and extreme exploitation. As a result, most of the workers employed in the agate industry do not enjoy benefits that their counterparts in the organised industry do.

Working Conditions

In Khambat, the process of grinding and polishing of agate is very primitive. The grinding machines are simple devices powered by electric motors which are highly noisy and throw up lots of dust. The shaft of the grinding wheel is connected by a canvas belt, which is turned by a small electric motor. The grinding wheel wobbles as it spins with a loud disturbing noise. Agate stone grinders work with bare hands, without any protective gear, and are directly exposed to silica dust arising from cutting, grinding and polishing stones.

To shape the beads, the workers use their fingers to press the stones against the rotating wheel, which creates lots of friction, heat, sparks and vibration. The dust raised while grinding settles down all over the place. The face, hair, ear and nose of the workers also get filled up with dust. Even their clothes are not spared. By continuously working with bare hands, the workers by and large end up with swollen hands and cracked fingers.

Being constantly at the mercy of the employer, the agate workers do not dare to raise their voice against any injustices done to them. In the event of any serious illness or accidents, they cannot claim for compensation. On average, an agate worker earns just 40-50 rupees a day (less than one US dollar) from grinding or polishing stones, which is hardly sufficient to meet his/her daily expenses or properly take care of the family.

Being constantly at the mercy of the employer, the agate workers do not dare to raise their voice against any injustices done to them. In the event of any serious illness or accidents, they cannot claim for compensation. On average, an agate worker earns just 40-50 rupees a day (less than one US dollar) from grinding or polishing stones, which is hardly sufficient to meet his/her daily expenses or properly take care of the family.

When continuously exposed to silica dust, the lungs gradually get filled with fine dust particles. There are no machines installed to gather the silica dust during production. The workers are not well protected and just cover only their nose with a handkerchief which does not properly block the finer silica dust particles. The dust does not just remain within the workshop, but travels to nearby areas and even affects people who constantly come in contact with it, even if they are not working on the machines.

A survey report conducted by National Institute of Occupational Health states that silicosis is most prevalent among workers engaged in the agate industry, especially those working in grinding and polishing units. The grinders (also called ghasiyas) are most affected by silica dust and most vulnerable to silicosis. Regular exposure to even 25-27 micrograms per cubic centimeter of air can have devastating consequences on the workers’ health. Even non-workers who are exposed to this dust are equally vulnerable to silicosis. The report further states that male and female workers are equally vulnerable and many workers developed silicosis within a span of four to five years of work.

Usually, it takes some years for the silicosis to show its symptoms. Lack of early detection and non-treatment coupled with malnutrition often prove fatal for the workers. Most victims of silicosis come to know about it only in the later stages. At this point, they lack strength and continuously fall ill with severe cough, fever and other symptoms. Unable to do any physical labour, they just remain at home, chained to perennial poverty and illness, always tired, weak, struggling for breath. They finally fall in the trap laid out by the tentacles of silicosis and die a premature death.

On the issue of silicosis in the Khambat region, Jagdish Patel feels that although research has been conducted many times by different agencies, the picture that emerges from these research projects is far from clear and points to several critical issues. For a long time, in the absence of proper diagnosis, many cases of silicosis have been recorded as cases of tuberculosis, making the morbidity figures very inaccurate right at the outset. Several silicosis patients have also died either without proper diagnosis or with treatment only for tuberculosis. Different reports show different figures. Some reports show the total number of people affected by silicosis in Khambat to be around 50,000, while some others show a figure of 30,000. Government officials give a totally different picture, denying these figures and reducing the number to around 5000. Thus, it’s a difficult task to give an accurate figure of people affected by silicosis.

Compensation for Silicosis Victims

The agate industry in Khambat is composed of home-based small industrial units, which do not fall in the purview of the Factories Act. Workers are ineligible for compensation for any accidents or injuries that take place at the workplace. Even those seriously affected by silicosis haven’t received any compensation so far. A well defined employer-employee relationship is totally absent. There is no mechanism to ensure proper wages or timely payments. Thus almost all the workers are completely at the mercy of the employer, and treat workers almost like slaves.

An agate worker polishing stones in his small unit
Photo by PT George

Negligence by the Government

A significantly large number agate workers in Khambat are treated as family members by their employers. Government officials complain that the owners give wrong information about workers status. Accidents and injuries are seldom reported to government authorities. This cloak of familial relationships, which adorns the workers, prevents them from getting any official help from the government. Since the workers are not registered with any specific industrial units, they are also not protected by the Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) Act which ensures the provision of certain benefits when workers fall ill.

Similarly, another controversy surrounding the agate industry in Khambat is the apathy of the government officials, who hardly pay any attention to these workers’ woes or visit the work sites to track any illegal treatment of the workers.
Ironically, in 2008, the Gujarat government had passed a notification wherein if even one worker was employed in any manufacturing unit, it had to be registered under the Factories Act. But most employers in Khambat treat their workers as relatives, thus avoiding this notification.

In such a situation, it is the workers who suffer from all the illegalities that surround this industry. Prompt government intervention as well as speedy implementation of legal reforms and some compensation for silicosis victims and agate workers could save them from utter misery and poverty.

Agate Workers Rally

On May 1, 2012, for the first time in Khambat, an awareness rally was held to pay homage to workers who died of silicosis. The International Workers’ Memorial Day, which falls on April 28, was observed in Khambat on May 1. Hundreds of workers, mothers, children and widows came together at Shakarpur village and walked several kilometers to Khambat in the blistering summer heat. After the rally, the workers paid homage to the victims who died of silicosis in Khambat and handed over a petition to government officials. Although several requests were made to the government and many petitions filed, there is total apathy and negligence from the government side.

Efforts to Curb Silicosis

There are several steps through which employers and workers together can help prevent silicosis. First of all, installing ventilating units can prevent dust from being released into the air, thus reducing workers’ exposure. Training workers to create awareness about the adverse impacts and using water to wet the grinding surface could reduce dust exposure to a large extent. Wearing good quality masks also could help prevent the inhalation of dust.

In an enquiry report by Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Gujarat in 2007, written after a visit to the Khambat region, had proposed several measures to the Gujarat Government to prevent silicosis. Some of the important recommendations were:

Creation of welfare funds with the support of government agencies and traders; Free treatment for silicosis patients in primary health centres and opening of such centres in the vicinity of industrial units. In the case of a silicosis patient’s death, it recommended that both the Panchayats (grassroots governing body) and the Municipal bodies should issue death certificates mentioning the cause of death as silicosis; Declaration of minimum wage for the agate workers; Food and nutrition allowance for silicosis patients; Insurance benefits for agate workers; And financial assistance in installing ventilation units.

In spite of several case studies, reports and fact-finding missions, the agate workers are still waiting to get any help from the government. Thus, several issues still haunt the dying agate industry. The extremely poor agate workers, who cannot even afford to pay their medical bills, are completely incapable of installing costly machines to control dust. Questions are also raised on the efficacy of these machines to create dust-free work environment. Another issue that the workers face is changing their work habits to adapt to the new mechanized work environment. Until these issues are resolved, the poor workers in the agate industry in Khambhat will remain victims trapped in the net of silicosis.