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Work can kill

India's road to developed-nation status is littered with the bodies of its workers. If at least 40,000 workers die every year at work, and lakhs more, particularly in the informal sector, fall prey to occupational diseases, it's just collateral damage. One can understand industry's motives in absolving itself of liability, but how does one explain the government's lapses in this regard, or that of trade unions and workers collectives?

"Work kills an Indian every five minutes, the equivalent of a Bhopal every month," according to a 2001 paper written by Stirling Smith, a UK-based occupational safety expert. Work as a killer of 100,000 people every year should have set alarm bells ringing. But the government is not alarmed. The labour ministry puts the figure of workplace casualties at 1,624.

Occupational diseases, according to Smith, affect roughly 2 million new workers each year. The labour ministry has no figure for this.

Even the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that at least 40,000 workers lose their lives at work each year in India.

It is a fact that Smith's 2001 estimates, extrapolated from UK occupational safety and health figures, are the only close-to-real data that we have of work-related injuries and deaths in India. A decade on, we still do not have authoritative data on occupational health in the country.

According to an ILO report titled 'Decent Work -- Safe Work, ILO Introductory Report to the XVIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work', lack of data on occupational safety and health is due to poor reporting systems and coverage. "India reports 222 fatal accidents while the Czech Republic, which has a working population of about 1% of India, reports 231," the ILO report notes. So, does it mean we have better safety at work than European Union member, the Czech Republic?

Despite a surfeit of agencies -- the Ministry of Labour, National Institute of Occupational Health, Directorate General of Factories Advice Service and Labour Institutes, Director General of Mines Safety -- and an impressive array of labour laws, the pathetic quality of data on workplace-related injuries and fatalities is not merely frustrating. It is intriguing.

Labour activists and trade unions concede that most of the casualties are of workers living at or below the poverty line; most of the deaths are among contract workers rather than those who form the rank and file of organised sector unions. The absence of information on casualties, then, takes on a class dimension, giving the lie to India's claim of equality of all people regardless of economic standing.

Can this apathy be attributed to the ruling elite's class bias which sees workers as a resource to be exploited and expended? The slew of anti-labour policies, laws and responses of the legislature and judiciary in recent times would suggest such an explanation. Another factor, a far more powerful and sinister one, also contributes to the criminal silence surrounding the disease and death of Indian workers. Just as it is a fact that victims of workplace injuries are predominantly from economically weaker sections of society, it is also a fact that those who stand to gain are economically powerful, often with corporate social responsibility profiles that would put Mother Teresa to shame.

Take the case of the construction industry. Our newspapers are replete with two-column-inch stories about workers being crushed to death, or dying after falling from a height at this IT industry construction site, or that road project. Keeping construction costs viable, it seems, requires a surplus of dispensable labour - a resource that India pretends to have in abundance.

Death and injury from accidents in the Indian construction sector is widespread. Globally, 17% of all work-related fatalities are in the construction sector, according to the ILO. Equally alarming is the number of people who succumb to dust-related illnesses -- asbestosis, silicosis -- mostly in the production of raw material for construction.

Unfortunately, institutions like the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), which were set up to help workers realise their aspirations for safe workplaces, appear to be working with industry to publish made-to-order studies masquerading as science. The NIOH's ongoing study on white asbestos -- a carcinogenic fibre banned in over 40 countries -- is supposed to be neutral, scientific and rigorous enough to inform the nation's policy on this deadly fibre. But, with 25% funding from the asbestos industry, a review committee stacked with asbestos-cement manufacturers, and a research institute that lacks integrity, the study's conclusions are already becoming evident.

The NIOH has suggested that the hazards of asbestos can be addressed through "controlled use" and stringent implementation of workplace safety standards. Countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have opted for national bans on all forms of asbestos, indicating that "controlled use" is too much trouble or unviable. "Controlled use" in the Indian context is clearly a joke.

An Ahmedabad-based electricity-generation company compelled its workers, who had contracted a debilitating respiratory disease called asbestosis in the factory, to an out-of-court settlement. The company tried to persuade victims to sign a document stating that they did not suffer from the disease, and that the company was giving them money on "humanitarian grounds". Thanks to the lawyer engaged by the victims, this disclaimer was thwarted. But most workers do not even get offered compensation, let alone enjoy the luxury of engaging a lawyer to represent them.

One can understand industry's motives to absolve itself of liability or possible legal action. But what stops a worker or a trade union from reporting accidents or diseases? Out of an estimated 500 million-strong workforce in India, nearly 92% are in the unorganised sector, including the farming sector. With informalisation of jobs even in the formal sectors, trade unions have been pushed to a corner where the top priority seems to be fighting for job security and decent wages. Interviews with trade unionists reveal that all of them believe occupational safety to be a critical issue. Equally, all feel that strained resources and a hostile anti-labour environment have forced them to relegate occupational safety to an occasional crisis-time concern.

If, as Gandhi said, the means to an end matters, then the road that India is taking to the elusive and misguided notion of "developed"-nation status, littered as it is with the bodies of Indian workers, is hardly a justifiable means. -- Madhumita Dutta, Rakhal Gaitonde, Nityanand Jayaraman, R Sukanya

(Madhumita Dutta is a Chennai-based activist and a member of Corporate Accountability Desk-The Other Media. Rakhal Gaitonde, a post-graduate in community medicine, works with communities on issues of health systems, accountability, and governance. He is based in Thirukazhukundram, Tamil Nadu, and is associated with the Bangalore-based Community Health Cell. Nityanand Jayaraman is an independent journalist and researcher focusing on investigating corporate abuses of the environment and human rights. He is based in Chennai and is associated with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. R Sukanya researches and teaches public health. She also works with the Community Health Cell, Bangalore)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009