The stone-carving industry in Udaipur, Rajasthan is built on the labour of predominantly adivasi and Dalit workers, who are increasingly falling prey to the health hazard of silicosis, a deadly long-term lung disease. The state government must involve the industry in innovating solutions and provide a regulatory framework to protect workers’ health and provide them minimum social security rights, writes DR TANYA CHAUDHARY.
AJARAM Garasia (age 30) from Ghata village in Debla, Udaipur, had left work before the COVID pandemic when he was diagnosed with silicosis at a government hospital in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan. He worked at the Sompura Marble Factory in Pindwara, Sirohi as a pathhar gadhai majdoor (stone-carving labourer). His work was to carve intricate design on the stones which were mostly used in the construction of temples all across the country and, at times, were also used for aesthetic purposes in buildings and homes.
He estimated that he may have been 12-13 years of age when he first went with his father to work at a factory in Pindwara, after leaving education at the fifth standard. His grandfather used to practice agriculture, but his father inherited too small a land holding to depend entirely on it for cultivation. Besides, there was a water shortage in his village, which created a hindrance to the practice of agriculture.
His father, for the most part of his life, had worked on stones using his hands and had started working with machines at a later stage in his work life, which is why he did not get sick from silicosis at a young age, unlike his son.
Garasia started with earnings of Rs. 60-70 per day. In the initial couple of years, he worked with his hands, but afterwards the labour contractor had asked him to work with a machinery popularly known as ‘grinder’.
He had worked in Pindwara as a pathhar gadhai majdoor for about 15 years of his life, working for about ten hours per day. While he left his work, he was earning INR 450-500 per day. On an average, he would earn about INR 8000 per month.
When he started feeling sick, he went to Pindwara to a local doctor who gave him medicine for two months, after which he went to Gujarat to a private doctor who gave him medicine for another 2 months. He was finally diagnosed with silicosis at a government hospital in Udaipur. He had applied at the Rajasthan government’s online portal for Silicosis Grant Disbursement in August, for an appointment to get tested for silicosis. After an appointment, which has not occurred yet, he would get tested, and the approval for his grant may take up to 8-10 months.
After his illness, his wife and mother took work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, where she earns INR 1,800-1,900 for 20 days on an average. There is no water for wheat cultivation, and in Kharif season, he grows maize, which the household uses for its own consumption. They get 5 kg of wheat per person per month through their Below Poverty Line ration card.
According to Garasia, if nothing works out, he may have to send his wife to Pindwara for working in polishing factories, where women workers get up to INR 200 per day, while commuting by shared jeep costs INR 60 for a back and forth trip.
Silicosis from stone-carving work shortening lives
An in-depth inquiry into the lives of workers who worked in stone-carving industry took us to villages inhabited by primarily tribal populations, in Udaipur, from where workers migrated to Pindwara in Sirohi, for work. While going from one house to another in the Debla region of Kotra, Udaipur, a disconcerting reality of the villagers’ lives came forward – almost every third household had seen the death of a male member because of silicosis, after working in the stone-carving industry.
The modalities of this work blatantly revoke the workers’ right to life, and entail complex issues that call for consideration.
While the stone industry in Rajasthan is a huge source of revenue for the state, it is the activities of mining and quarrying which are usually known for their association with life-threatening lung diseases.
Our discussion with the workers and their union members revealed that the processing of stone comprises three steps: stone cutting, stone-carving, and stone polishing. The stone cutting in large blocks entails cutting at straight angles using machinery; therefore, the dust is easier to handle with protective gears as compared to the process of stone-carving, which uses angle grinders to give angular designs to the stones. The introduction of locally made machines in the process of stone-carving became prominent after 2000. However, in and after 2005, almost every other firm started using Chinese machinery because of lower costs associated with the latter.
Our conversation with researchers and activists working at a Worker’s Rights Centre in Pindwara revealed that Dr. P.K. Sisodia, who works as an Advisor for the Occupational Health of Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Welfare Board, Government of Rajasthan, had observed that workers in stone-carving industries are prone to contract silicosis and other fatal lung diseases at a younger age as compared to workers who work in mines. Yet the stone-carving for constructing aesthetic temples has somehow failed to be associated with the hazardous occupations and hazardous industry. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 (OSHWCC) defines ‘hazardous process’ in Section 2 (za) “… as raw materials used therein or the intermediate or finished products, bye-products, hazardous substances, wastes or effluents thereof or spraying of any pesticides, insecticides or chemicals used therein, as the case may be, would— (i) cause material impairment to the health of the persons engaged in or connected therewith, or (ii) result in the pollution of the general environment.” Yet, the First Schedule of OSHWCC only includes the stone crushing industry in the list of industries involving hazardous processes.
With the usage of machinery comes the consequential dust, which is in form of particulate matter, besides being silica-rich, which compromises the normal functioning of lungs and is life-threatening. While the activities of the mining, quarrying, construction, ordnance, and slate pencil industries are appropriately linked with silicosis on the National Health Portal, there is no mention of the stone-carving industry.
Almost every third household had seen the death of a male member because of silicosis, after working in the stone-carving industry. The modalities of this work blatantly revoke the workers’ right to life, and entail complex issues that call for consideration.
The perilousness of the stone-carving industry was lesser known until the Pathar Gadhai Majdoor Suraksha Sangh brought it to light, and started mobilising workers to demand dignified work and fight for safety at the workplace. The crude death rate of working-age men in Pindwara block is over four times the state average. Associations like the Workers Rights Centre and the Majdoor Sangh are striving to develop safety solutions in stone-carving work.
Jitibesh Sahoo, a researcher associated with the Workers Rights Centre, believes that the challenge is to get all the units in stone-carving industry under some legal regulatory framework that assures safety at workplaces and reduces the health hazards linked with stone-carving. Protective gear such as masks and shields are not enough to prevent workers from inhaling the particulate matter; therefore, comprehensive and elaborate action-oriented research is required for developing solutions. Both industry and the government should take responsibility for the same.
Political economy of stone-carving and temple-building industry
While there are many in-migrants in Pindwara from the state of Odisha and the districts of Udaipur and Pali, there also exists a large stream of out-migration to the states of Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, and Maharashtra. The factories for stone-carving are usually concentrated in Pindwara which draws its workers majorly from tribal and Scheduled Castes dominated regions of Rajasthan.
It is not coincidental to find the stone industry resting on the cushion of caste exploitation, where the occupation of designing/architecture is only to be allotted to Sompura Brahmins for not only the reason of generationally acquired skills but also for validating the purity of temples by the Sompuras. It is a Sompura who decides whether the constructed building is worthy of being a temple.
Workers in stone-carving industries are prone to contract silicosis and other fatal lung diseases at a younger age as compared to workers who work in mines.
The Sompuras enjoys a dominant position in the political economy of stone-carving industry and temple building on the virtue of their caste. They are employed by the temple trusts, and are responsible for supervising the factory either personally or through local architect to which the temple building assignment goes. The factory owners are mostly people from Gujarat and other parts of Rajasthan, and usually from upper castes and classes. The factory owners hire contractors who employ the workers – mostly Adivasis and Dalits.
While on one hand, the workers carve designs on stone for temples worth crores of rupees, they receive wages of only Rs. 350-450 per day, which makes their earnings not more than Rs. 14,000 – 15,000 per month, provided they work all the days in a month. Sahoo and Priyanka Jain, another researcher with the Workers’ Right Centre, note that the pernicious influence of such deeply engrained caste structure in the stone-carving and temple building industry has not only kept Adivasis and Dalits at the lowest rung of the value chain but has also normalised and concealed their deaths.
Ironically, the official web portal of State Cluster Development Programme gives an introduction to the Stone Cluster, Pindwara, Sirohi as : “… Artisans of this cluster are world famous for temple construction. They have learned this skill from their ancestor and pass it down to next generation. It is common belief that if there is any construction of temple work all over the world, it could not complete without involvement of Pindwara artisan. This is proven by this fact that proposed “Ram Mandir” the lord Ram’s Temple at Ayodhaya is also being carved in Sirohi”.
As evident from the narratives of workers shared above, the acquisition of skills amongst the workers is not ancestral or generational. It is only the Sompura Brahmins and the upper caste industrialists who can be connected with this work generationally. The workers who did not know about the fatality of the work went into this area of work for two generations for earning livelihoods. However, as more and more workers and their families are realising about the early death associated with the work, they are choosing not to enter this labour market, and are migrating outside seasonally for other types of casual labour. Yet, the lack of livelihood options and social capital in other sectors of employment forces workers to take jobs in pathhar gadhai.
The pernicious influence of such deeply engrained caste structure in the stone-carving and temple building industry has not only kept Adivasis and Dalits at the lowest rung of the value chain but has also normalised and concealed their deaths.
Therefore, the industry of stone-carving and temple building is, in a way, also necessary for providing employment to a major group of the population of Adivasis and Dalits in this region of Rajasthan. In such a scenario, it is crucial that the mortifying deaths of workers caused by the inadequate measures of safety in stone-carving factories be addressed.
Ensuring safe work
While the Government of Rajasthan is aware of the problem and has formed a Silicosis Grant Disbursement Portal which enables workers to claim relief/compensation amount of Rs. 5 lakhs in phases, it does not seem to be adequate, considering the gravitas of the problem.
The workers revealed that there have been many cases in their villages, where workers, after registering at the portal have passed away while waiting for the appointment, confirmation, certification, and disbursement of the grant. The responsibility of running from pillar to post to avail the relief amount and proving their suffering/disease is entirely on the workers, while the industrialists are nowhere to be held accountable.
The responsibility of running from pillar to post to claim the relief amount from the government and proving their suffering/disease is entirely on the workers, while the industrialists are nowhere to be held accountable.
Therefore, there is a need to pool in resources for research and development to evolve a technology that would ensure safe work for stone carvers. A public private partnership (PPP) between the industries and the government could spearhead innovation in that direction, unless the industry of stone-carving takes a retrogressive step and dismisses usage of machinery, and promotes the workers as dignified ‘artists’ which seems surreal in the existing copacetic capitalist scheme of stone-cluster industry.
The OSHWCC should categorize the stone-carving industry as a hazardous industry. This would endeavour to bring in most micro and small-scale firms working as informal units under regulations to protect workers from the occupational hazards of the work and provide them with basic minimum social security benefits related to life, death, disability, old age, and maternity benefits. While a lot can be said about the lived realities of stone-carving workers, changes can only be enforced when these realities are first recognised and validated by the State.
(Dr. Tanya Chaudhary is an Associate Fellow at Institute for Human Development. She has completed her Ph.D degree from the School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi.)