Dhaka, Bangladesh
Breathing poison

Off the track

Breathing poison

On a recent summer morning, Urmila Yadav set off for the main temple in the village of Budhpura, located in India’s north-western state of Rajasthan, where a community meeting was taking place. She hesitated as she entered the courtyard filled with women of different ages. All of their husbands had died while working in the mines as they succumbed to silicosis, an incurable lung disease. Silicosis, which kills thousands around the world, is caused by inhaling silica dust found in rock, sand, quartz and many building materials. It can lead to breathing difficulties, regular coughing, chest pains and, sometimes, tuberculosis and other chest infections. The widows had decided to stage a protest in the main town of Bundi, where the state’s chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, was visiting. As Urmila entered, the widows were preparing slogans and banners demanding pensions and compensation. “There she is. Come, come,” a few women cried out. Feeling a little overwhelmed by the crowd, the 19-year-old smiled shyly and sat on the ground. As those around her shared their stories of despair, she kept her head down and nervously started to fold and tuck her long scarf. When it was her turn to speak, Ram Chandra, an elderly man diagnosed with silicosis, addressed the gathering instead. “Our daughter, as you know, suffers from silicosis.” Two years ago, at the age of 17, Urmila became one of the youngest certified cases of silicosis in India. Her case is singular, even in this village where mining and quarry work is the only occupation and silicosis is a commonplace disease that strikes almost every family, it is mostly men who are affected. Rajasthan, which has the highest number of mining leases, has been the epicentre of silicosis in India. The number of silicosis certified patients in Rajasthan, according to government data, is 8441 (the figures are available up to April 2017). Actual numbers are likely to be much higher, claim advocacy groups. It is the only state to have a monetary relief mechanism for certified patients, in place since 2013, but the onus is on workers to get a diagnosis and prove their occupational history, which is challenging in an unregulated industry like mining in India. More men than women are vulnerable to the disease, because of higher exposure over a period of time. The National Human Rights Commission of India calculates the average age of onset of silicosis at 27 years. For a young teenage girl like Urmila to have silicosis is “quite an unusual case”, says Dr Vinod Jangid, member of the pneumoconiosis board, which is responsible for diagnosing silicosis at the medical college in Kota, a district neighbouring Bundi.

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