On May Day, India’s Temple Builders Demand Workplace Safety Against Silicosis

400 workers occupied the streets of Pindwara’s RIICO to demand freedom from the fatal Silicosis disease caused by silica-rich stones used for constructing temples.

Very few have heard of Pindwara, a block in Rajasthan’s Sirohi district. This nondescript town is home to about 230 factories that have built some of India’s most famous temples. From the Akshardham network of temples to the popular Jain pilgrim destinations in Bihar and Jharkhand – the Adivasi and Dalit labourers of Pindwara have been building big and small temples spread across the length and breadth of the country for decades.

On May Day, 400 of them occupied the streets of Pindwara’s RIICO – the industrial area where the biggest of these factories are located. The workers had one rallying cry – freedom from the occupational disease of Silicosis. According to the Sirohi district’s health department, over 1,650 of these temple-building workers are dying due to a fatal, untreatable lung disease.

Even this number is an under-estimation, given that Silicosis screening began only three years ago in this area. Ironically, factory owners call this work bhagwan ka kaam (God’s work). On May Day, the Sangathan sent a strong message to the employers asserting that this holy work must become safe and dignified.

Silicosis in Pindwara, India’s foremost temple-building hub

Addressing the crowd of workers that had shown up for the May Day rally, Sohan Lal asked:

“We stone-carvers are builders of famous temples in Delhi, Ahmedabad, London, New York, Australia. Rich and famous people visit these temples and enjoy the fruits of our labour, while we die of Silicosis in big numbers in anonymity. Last year Prime Minister Modi laid the foundation of Swaminarayan’s latest temple project in Abu Dhabi. But what about us, the workers who are building this temple here in Pindwara and are dying in the process?”

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Sohan Lal is one of the 1,000 workers in Pindwara that have formed a union, Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh, to bring the issue of death in India’s temple-building industry to light.

It is indeed shocking how hazardous temple-building is and how little is known about it. Many reports of Silicosis affected communities have emerged from Rajasthan recently. However, it is activities like mining and  quarrying that are typically associated with the disease.

400 members of Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh occupied Pindwara’s industrial area on May Day, demanding an end to Silicosis in temple-building work. Credit: Priyanka Jain

400 members of Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh occupied Pindwara’s industrial area on May Day, demanding an end to Silicosis in temple-building work. Credit: Priyanka Jain

In the last three years, however, the Sangathan pressured the district and state health departments to hold regular health camps for Pindwara’s stone carvers too. They were able to mobilise over 5000 (of the total 15,000 labourers working in this industry) to attend these health camps. This has helped build up crucial and undeniable medical evidence about the toxic nature of this work.

At a meeting organised by the Indian Association of Occupational Health (on April 13, 2019), Dr Sisodiya (Rajasthan labour department’s occupational health advisor) confirmed that Sirohi’s stone carvers are among the most Silicosis affected communities in the state.

He shared that, in mining, the prevalence of the disease peaks among older workers in their late 40s and 50s. In temple-building, however, the exposure to dust is so extreme the Silicosis victims in Pindwara are on average in their early 30s, some even as young as 19 years old.

Back in Pindwara, the Sangathan is being supported by a Workers’ Right Centre, which has been filing RTIs with various government departments to build up evidence. Using death records of the area, the Centre estimates that the crude death rate among working-age men in Pindwara block is over 4 times the state average.

The state government is aware of the problem and has distributed over Rs. 19 crores to these affected stone carvers. The Sangathan and the Centre have been assisting in this process too, but they do not want workers to be distracted by the relief money. They argue that money cannot compensate for the death of these young lives.

Union lead Shankar Meghwal, a stone-carver himself for the last 20 years said:

‘The only humane and sustainable solution to the problem is for the industry to take responsibility for the occupational health of workers and invest in effective dust-control safety solutions. This is why the central agenda of the May Day rally is on safety and prevention, and not on compensation.”

Under the hot Rajasthani May sun, the rally proceeded through Pindwara’s industrial area, as Sangathan members chanted slogans to attract the attention of factory owners and contractors around them. As they marched along, labourers working inside neighbouring factories came out hearing the chants.

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Ao re, ao re“, Sangathan members called upon these workers to drop their machines for a day and join the procession. Some workers smiled and ran out to join the groups, while most stayed back with their employers and contractors standing by their side, glaring at them. This rally was a first-of-its-kind procession in the industrial space in Pindwara, which is more used to having sadhus and babas visit factories than workers advocating for labour rights.

‘Prevention of Silicosis’ issue gaining ground

Silicosis is an epidemic across Rajasthan, affecting over 9,000 workers as certified by the state government. ‘Increasing, the Labour Department in Jaipur is beginning to recognise the importance of developing a comprehensive Silicosis response policy with prevention as the central issue, over and beyond just relief distribution,” said Sarfaraz Sheik, an activist from Kotda Adivasi Sansthan, who was part of a civil society delegation that met the Chief Secretary on August 31, 2018, to discuss the issue.

Carving of silica-rich stones for temples underway, releasing toxic, super-fine dust. Given the lack of effective safety and dust-control mechanisms in these stone-carving factories, workers end up inhaling large volumes of this deadly dust for 7-8 hours a day. The lethal silica in this dust scars their lungs and rapidly diminishes its capacity to take in oxygen. This leads to Silicosis, a fatal and highly debilitating disease with no cure. Credit: Yuvraj Dhir

‘Though prevention is becoming a priority, there is a lack of understanding in Jaipur about how to take this agenda forward. Ensuring safety will need strong policy decisions on industry regulation, in addition to introducing effective dust-control technology, which is both worker-friendly and suited for the informal work conditions found across Rajasthan’s stone economy’, adds Santosh Poonia from Aajeevika Bureau’s legal aid division, who is also part of Rajasthan’s Silicosis response network that has been engaging the state government on the issue.

In Pindwara, the Sangathan has decided to undertake its own experiments in safety solutions. They have paired up with safety engineers and labour activists Dunu Roy and Ranjan Mehta from the Hazard Centre for this. In February, they received training from Dunu Roy on the central principles of occupational health and safety.

Dunu Roy training the cadre of Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh in the principles of occupational health and safety. Credit: Jibitesh Sahoo

Sangathan members shared that the training played a critical role for them, teaching them that safe workplaces can only be created by the removal or control of hazards. Role of personal protective gear such as masks, gloves or helmets is secondary, and useful only after the hazards have been controlled.

Manoj (from Amli panchayat) was working in a factory when the Sangathan’s rally passed by, chanting slogans of safety. Manoj jumped over the factory wall, wiped off the dust on his body and face, grabbed a placard from another worker and joined the rally enthusiastically. ‘I have seen many friends and family members die of Silicosis building these temples. I want to be part of this demand for safety’, Manoj said. Credit: Priyanka Jain

These intuitive sounding principles have huge implications for Pindwara’s safety agenda. The Union shares that the employers in Pindwara violate these principles on a daily basis with total impunity.

‘Every time someone visits a factory here to understand the issue of Silicosis, the factory owners tell them that they have fulfilled their responsibility towards safety by distributing masks to workers, and it is our fault that we don’t wear them’, shares Narayan, the secretary of the Union.

Narayan explains that several doctors and occupational health experts have repeatedly challenged employers in Pindwara, and informed them that the dust levels in their factories are too high for ordinary masks.

Yet the employers keep using the excuse of masks to shift the blame on to workers. The Sangathan feels that the principles they’ve learnt during their training will help them create a counter-narrative, preventing factory owners from getting away with such excuses in the name of safety.

Developing safety solutions drawn from workers’ lived realities

The Sangathan has realised that they would have to play a central role if safety has to be effectively implemented in Pindwara. So they undertook a Time & Motion study, with the support of Hazard Centre’s Ranjan Mehta, to identify the factors that influence dust exposure levels at various points in the production process.

The workers turned themselves into researchers for a few weeks, spending a total of 1200 hours observing 150 workers across 30 factories of different sizes – from the start of the work day to its end – documenting critical data points.

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‘The study has revealed that Pindwara’s stone carving factories are death zones with life-threatening levels of silica-rich dust, with PM 2.5 dust crossing unsafe levels over 3 times! In many factories, the PM 10 dust was higher than the maximum reading limit of our air quality monitoring machines. Moreover, lung function tests reveal that 70% of the workers in these factories have highly comprised lung capacities’, shares Ranjan.

For the past month, Sangathan members have been coming together to discuss the detailed findings of the study and brainstorm solutions together. “We have been documenting workers’ feedback on factory floor arrangements, air direction and piece-rate system of payment, which are all critical factors that we need to address in the prevention strategies we are currently developing,” shared Ranjan.

Silicosis ‘awareness’ material distributed in factories set up by Swaminarayan Trust. The leaflet ascribes the cause of Silicosis to workers’ ‘irresponsible’ behavior. It encourages them to use masks and pray to god to avoid Silicosis. The leaflet has no mention of the toxic nature of dust and employers’ responsibility to control it. Credit: Special Arrangement

Sangathan members are quick to add that no dust-control technology can make Pindwara safer unless the factories are regulated and brought under the ambit of the law. According to an RTI filed by the Centre, only 3% of the stone carving factories are registered under the Factories Act.

‘There is a strong trend of sub-contracting work on a piece-rate basis, which is pushing this hazardous work underground, into people’s backyards into deep, rural, residential areas. To check this trend, the Sangathan demands that stone carving work be declared as hazardous, so that every factory can be regulated,” asserts union member Ranjit.

The Sangathan shows the math behind this demand – one-third of Pindwara’s stone-carvers or around 5000 workers have by now been screened by the state. Out of these, around 2078 were diagnosed with Silicosis at the health camps (some of them are yet to receive their certificates). This highlights, they argue, that about four out of ten of Pindwara’s stone carvers are Silicosis victims, way above any threshold for dangerous work.

“Declaring stone carving hazardous under the Factories Act would mean that every unit, even if it employs only one worker, would need to be registered and can be inspected. If this policy is introduced, it will reduce the incentive to fragmenting work through sub-contracting, and make it feasible to introduce dust-control technologies across the industry,” said union leader Soma Ram.

Paradigm shift needed in Rajasthan’s approach to Silicosis

The Union’s demands highlight the need for the state government to treat industry regulation seriously. On similar lines, Dunu Roy argues “Rajasthan’s policy approach needs to shift from treating Silicosis as a ‘notified disease’, to sharply focusing on Silicosis-prone work as notified industry”.

Dunu explains that today, the policy makes a dying worker run from pillar to post to prove that he or she has the notified disease of Silicosis, if they want to receive even the most minimum relief from the government. Meanwhile, the owners in these hazardous industries bear no cost of the process.

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The approach of the ‘notified industry’, on the other hand, Dunu argues, will shift the burden on employers. This approach would entail that the state government strictly enforces the half-yearly medical check-up that employers have to provide under the Factories Act; and that the employers pay the medical expenses for symptoms of occupational illness shown by a worker.

Another critical dimension, he adds is to follow the principle of worker representation in all bodies and boards set up by the government, including the certification board and the factory inspection team. “It is only then that the industry will take safety seriously,” concludes Dunu.

Pindwara’s Sangathan members, supported by a team of engineers, doctors, lawyers and labour activists, are hoping that their experiments end Silicosis in their area. If they succeed, it will be a huge win Pindwara. It will also have reverberations across Rajasthan and other parts of the country, where over 10 million workers remain highly exposed to Silicosis.

Ideas for combatting the disease in the context of informal work conditions are desperately needed. Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh’s experience can add much-needed substance to the occupational health and safety discourse of the country, which otherwise remain fixated on the wellbeing of white collar professionals.

Pindwara’s Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangthan and Workers’ Right Centre is advocating for policy changes that will reduce informal work in Pindwara. They argue that is necessary for safety and dust-control technologies to be effectively rolled out. Credit: Subhadeep Ghosh

But will Jaipur listen? Rajasthan’s Silicosis Portal’s district-wise summary report shows that 5327 certified victims are still to receive their due compensation, amounting to a whopping  266 crores. Moreover, lakhs of additional workers across the state are lining up to register and get screened for Silicosis. The compensation burden on the government of Rajasthan is piling fast, looking to run into over 1000 crores within the term of the Ghelot government.

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To stem the increase of silicosis and to ensure the welfare of those already affected by it, the state government should immediately set up a state-level, Silicosis programme that can build evidence, coordinate between various departments and oversee the implementation of prevention and control strategies.

However, the Sangathan’s word of caution remains poignant – just throwing money at the problem will not make it go away. Most importantly, the state government will have to stand up to powerful industrial lobbies that control every segment of Rajasthan’s stone economy.

In Pindwara’s case, these groups come with the additional force of a strong religious garb and an international network of devout, powerful followers. It remains to be seen if the state government’s interest in the prevention of Silicosis will find its feet to truly defend the life of its citizens.

Priyanka Jain and Jibitesh Sahoo are researchers with the Workers’ Right Centre in Pindwara, that is jointly set up by Aajeevika Bureau and Kotda Adivasi Sansthan.