Excerpts from the working paper “Bijolia’s Harvest of Stone: Conditions of Work Among Quarrying Labour in Rajasthan” by Anumeha Yadav, published by Centre for Sustainable Employment, Azim Premji University:
Bijolia in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district lies at the heart of massive deposits of Lower Red and Blue Bhander sandstone deposits of the Vindhyan and Trans-Aravalli-Vindhayan ranges, exposed over an area of 5,000 square 3 kilometers. It is one of the largest centers of sandstone production, along with Jodhpur, Karauli, Dholpur, and Bundi districts. Most rural families here work as labourers for precarious wages in what they call “paththar ki kheti”, harvesting stone, quarrying the sloping plateau in south east Rajasthan, the Pathar and Uparmal region. The main quarries are Berisal, Navanagar, Baniyon Ka Talab, where sandstone has been mined since several decades.
On the outskirts of Bijolia, sprawling opencast quarries stretch as far as one can see, some nearly hundred meters deep. Each quarry is separated by heaps of several meters high excavated overburden, boulders, and debris. Besides the quarries, open fields in and around hamlets have been converted in to “stocks” of sandstone, where the grey-brown grainy slabs are stacked on top of one another, and inside villages, the sandstone slabs are stacked and erected as fences around farms and houses.
Rajasthan’s sandstone is chiseled easily, and has acid and alkali resistant properties which allow it to weather saline sea winds easily. Thousands of tonnes of sandstone excavated and processed here makes its way through Gujarat’s Kandla port to the United States of America, western Europe (to the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Italy), Canada, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates, as cobbles, tiles for use in streets, sea faces, and buildings.
Rajasthan contributes 10 percent of the world’s production of sandstone. Domestically, Rajasthan is the largest sandstone-producing state by value, followed by Madhya Pradesh. It accounts for 80 percent of India’s sandstone output.
The international trade links have, however, not changed the informal nature of production and the lack of recognition of those labouring in sandstone quarries. The workers excavate sandstone manually with hammer and chisels, and through partially mechanized processes using wire saws.
In our survey, conducted between October 2017 and January 2018, two thirds of the quarry workers – 73 percent – were Dalit and Adivasi men and women. Nearly 36 percent of the workers owned some non-homestead land with significant average landholdings of 5.2 bigha, or three acres, but only 3 percent had access to any irrigation on their farm. This meant recourse to a single crop and unreliable yields and on an average, the workers worked as agricultural labourers for two months in the kharif agricultural season, and in sandstone mining doing casual labour for part of the year.
Of the respondent workers, less than one fourth earned a fixed monthly salary working inside a quarry as a miner or stone cutter. The rest were employed on piece rate or on daily wage rates. The more able-bodied workers usually worked in quarries that pay on a monthly wage system, with payments made on the fifth of each month based on the number of days worked. In “stocks”, the workers earned on a piece rate basis, currently at the rate Rs 3 per square foot of stone cut. They usually laboured with their families, or in groups of two to three to process 100-150 feet sandstone per day.
More than half, 53 percent of the workers, said they had started working in the quarries as minors. Nearly 83 percent had family members who were also engaged as casual workers by the quarry owners and contractors. Nearly half, or 53 percent workers, earned a minimum wage in the quarries, mostly men workers, though the workers say the minimum wage set between Rs 213 to Rs 271 a day itself was too low to manage basic expenses of rent, electricity, school fees etc. Of those who did not get a minimum wages, a majority, or 64 percent, were women. Another way the numbers stacked up against women workers was that 81 percent of workers who reported not getting paid even minimum wages were women.
Among women workers, all of whom worked as casual labourers loading crates and trailers in the mines and stocks, 81 percent complained of chronic pain in joints and chronic stomachache, and only a few had been to a clinic to seek treatment for chronic pain. A third of the women workers said they had started working after their husbands who worked in quarries died from respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and silicosis, or had a serious accident while working. Several spoke of the compulsion to work as their husbands who worked in the quarries drank alcohol excessively.
A large number of workers – both women and men – reported the same conditions of working in pain, in ill health, distress, or even when the rate was good, not being able to go to work all days to work. Among the workers, 63.3 percent said they had visited a health facility at least once in past 12 months. Nearly 67 percent said they had spent on medical treatment on themselves, or on a family member.
Over 66 percent reported they had ailments, and medical conditions, suffered chronic pain, they had not yet sought treatment for. The average spending on medical treatment in the previous 12 months was Rs 15,957. The highest a quarry worker had spent on treatment was Rs 90,000, and the least was Rs 500. The median medical expenses were Rs 10,000 a year. Sixty percent of the workers surveyed, and nearly 95 percent of those who had visited a health facility in last 12 months said they had been not been treated fully yet.
A large majority of workers viewed their illness and pain as being linked to their work. Of the workers, 89.9 percent of those who had visited a health facility in last 12 months said they saw their illness as being linked to their occupation. The effects of the harsh conditions of work on their health are worsened by the poor access to food and nutrition. Nearly a fifth – 16.6 percent – of the workers surveyed had not had dal even once the previous week.
The workers said that accidents were common. In case of accidents, the workers said, only a few labour contractors helped, “compensating Rs 50-100 for treatment” of minor injuries, or allowing the injured worker a day off. “If a worker has no money, then the contractor helps with basic treatment,” said Kailashi Bai Khatig. “But some contractors do not help at all, nor do they allow any leave. If a worker has taken a kharchi, an advance, then the worker has to work off the advance by sending a relative in their place.”
Khatig added that she did not know of any instance of contractors helping women workers with compensation for their work injuries or illnesses. In case of serious accidents, most workers recounted ordeals of being left to fend for themselves and their family members.
Many workers in Bijolia live with tuberculosis, and with what they termed “pathar ki bimaari”, or silicosis, a fatal respiratory illness caused by inhaling fine silica dust through prolonged exposure in the quarries. Working in mines and stone quarries, the workers inhale dust powder which deposits in their lungs. A fibrosis sets in which makes the lungs stiff. Slowly the workers’ breathing capacity reduces, till one day they cannot breathe at all.
While silicosis has no cure, it can easily be prevented if mine and quarry owners adopted wet drilling which reduced the amount of dust in the air, and provide workers with protective masks. The wet drilling equipment costs only between Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000, not even a tenth of the amounts of Rs 10-12 lakh the quarry owners spend on draining monsoon water from the quarries at the start of every mining season. But mine owners were reluctant to spend even this small amount, as they claimed that the use of wet drills slowed down production.
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