Among India’s mining communities, one of the major threats to health is silicosis. Nationwide, between three and ten million workers are at risk of developing the disease, for which there is no known cure. In Rajasthan, the scourge of silicosis is felt acutely by mining communities. It was reported last year that there is an estimated 22,000 silicosis patients in the state. To address the situation, the state government is rolling out a policy to improve the wellbeing of those afflicted.
From October 3rd, silicosis patients and their families in Rajasthan will be able to avail a full package of social security benefits such as pensions and will be guaranteed healthcare on an equitable level with those who do not have the disease. In addition, the state government will be taking steps to prevent silicosis through addressing working conditions at mines and stone crushing and construction sites, through regulation and raising awareness among workers of silicosis and ways to lessen their risk of developing the disease.
These benefits are key. Raising awareness addresses the fact that overall knowledge of silicosis is low among those at risk and the condition is often misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. Meanwhile, a worker’s death due to silicosis can lead to economic hardship for their families due to the loss of income. Even before a worker succumbs to the disease, they will suffer from either being unable to continue work due to the effects of silicosis or from feeling compelled to continue working in hazardous occupations because they have no other means of gaining employment.
The provision of pensions to workers can stave off these realities. Other benefits for families will include scholarships, Palanhaar – which provides support to vulnerable children such as orphans – and increased compensation (increased to Rs 5 lakh from Rs 4 lakh).
“Earlier, the government’s responsibility was limited to providing grants to silicosis patients,” said Akhil Arora, principal secretary of the state social justice and empowerment department. “Hence, under the new policy, the role of the government would be to prevent the disease by enforcing a certain kind of work environment at the construction, stone crushing and mining sites. This is a major shift in the emphasis of the government.”
Earlier this year, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot spoke up on the issue of silicosis. “The government is serious about the issue of silicosis in mining areas,” he said. “We would surely make efforts to free the state from the disease.” This policy represents a step towards making good on this promise.
Workplace-related diseases and hazards represent a national public health crisis. Issues are endemic throughout India, such as underreporting of accidents and lax regulatory environments leading to unsafe conditions heightening the risk of injury and exposure to long-term illnesses such as silicosis and asbestosis. Addressing workers’ concerns through meaningful reform to provide them with assistance and move to prevent unsafe conditions from taking place in the first instance are much-needed – not only in Rajasthan, but across the country.