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The mining mafia calls the shots

By Rashme Sehgal

In the stone quarries of Mirzapur district, Uttar Pradesh, women and children work for as little as Rs 2 and 2 kg of wheat a day. Here there are villages peopled only by the widows of men who have died of lung disorders or mining disasters. But the local administration denies that child labour, bonded labour or exploitative practices exist in its jurisdiction

As I arrive in the village of Mahugari in Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh, groups of women, old and young, gather around, presuming I am a government officer. Fifty-year-old Sukhani, the most vocal of the lot, says: "We're all widows. Our husbands died working in the stone quarries located close to our village. We are all on the brink of starvation. Can you help provide us employment?" When I tell them I am a reporter, Sukhani's fortitude turns to a rough brusqueness bordering on anger. She has five children. Three of them are married, but none is willing to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of the younger ones. Nor are they willing to take care of their ageing mother.

The stone quarries used to be located close to the village, in Rajgheri. Sukhani's husband found breaking stones for Rs 20 a day at the quarry such a back-breaking job that he turned to alcohol. The dangerous cocktail of alcohol and TB, a disease rampant amongst the male quarry workers, destroyed his life as it did the lives of the more than 100 families living in Mahugari.

Forty-year-old Ramdevi, mother of two sons and two daughters, saw her husband die in similar circumstances. "I had no money to get my husband, Ramlal, treated. Should I have filled my stomach and those of my children, or spent money on getting him (Ramlal) treated," she asks.

All my years in journalism do not prepare me for such a stark confrontation with reality. The mines in their neighbourhood have all but closed down. Three years ago there was an accident in which six workers died. Shyambali, whose husband was crushed to death when a large boulder fell on him, says she did not receive any compensation; she didn't even dare complain. Instead of addressing the issue, the local administration hurriedly forced the mine owners to shut down the mines.

"Why didn't you press your case for compensation," I ask. Shyambali gives me an uncomprehending look. "My two daughters have worked in the quarries from the age of six and eight. After working for an entire month they would be paid as little as Rs 60. When I protested, the contractor told me if I was not happy I was free to go."

Shyambali, Mangeria, Janwanti, Bhuja, Saroja, Radha... the list is endless. Reduced to faceless women whose voices do not count. Still, they insist that earning Rs 20 a day working the mines is better than having no work at all.

Exploitation of mine workers is the norm in Uttar Pradesh, as it is in Madhya Pradesh and even the more prosperous state of Haryana. The powerful nexus between politicians, mine owners and contractors ensures that labour laws and safety regulations are regularly flouted to earn the mining mafia maximum profits.

Champa Srivastava, who has been president of the Mirzapur-based civil society organisation Bandua Mukti Morcha for the last 30 years, says: "The situation here is only getting worse. There is no dearth of legislation protecting the rights of labourers, but the mining mafia is able to flout all the rules. Although the government passed a law abolishing bonded labour in 1976, large numbers of labourers continue to work for Rs 2 per day, plus two kilos of wheat.

"If these are not wages befitting a bonded labourer than what are they," asks the white-haired, khadi-clad Srivastava from behind a large desk in her office-cum-residence at Lal Diggi road, Mirzapur.

Widespread condemnation has ensured that the issue of bonded labour and child labour has been put under wraps. Champa's son, Ashwini Srivastava, who works as an advocate in the Allahabad High Court, points out that the local administration is no longer interested in giving release certificates to those who work as bonded labourers. "They all want to show that their area is free of this scourge," he says. Ashwini decided to blow the lid on the claims of the local administration. Since they refused to even acknowledge the existence of bonded labourers, he managed to get the thumb impressions of 80 bonded labourers on a writ petition that was filed in the Allahabad High Court. The labourers were working in the mines of Chunar and Rajgheri, near Mirzapur. The court served a summons on the various government departments, including the labour commissioner and the rehabilitation department, for an explanation as to why the practice still continued.

And so the district administration was forced to issue release certificates in the labourers' favour. Srivastava points out: "A certificate is proof that the practice of bonded labour is thriving. It forces the state government to give Rs 20,000 each as rehabilitation expenses. It also entitles the workers to allotment of a house on a priority basis through the Indira Awas Yojana and admission in schools for children at a monthly pension of Rs 100."

Shamshad Khan, president of the Mirzapur-based organisation CREDA, says: "Male workers are exposed to silicosis which damages their respiratory tracts. The mine owners conduct no check-ups and provide no medical insurance. The government has started giving small leases to different parties. This makes the owners much more difficult to trace."

Mirzapur's district magistrate Umesh Mittal denies the charges, insisting that the state machinery is doing its best to get rid of this scourge. He says: "The problem of bonded labour is very complex because many of them come from Bihar and Jharkhand. After they are rescued they revert back to their native villages. Their local machinery has to fight the rehabilitation cases on their behalf, but often there is little follow-up."

Shamim Akhtar, additional labour commissioner, Mirzapur, explains how the cases of 140 rescued workers are presently being fought in the labour courts. "The whole process is cumbersome and we cannot be blamed for this," Khan says.

Haryana's story is equally disturbing. In August 2005, a group of 113 bonded labourers held a dharna outside Haryana Bhavan. Although they had been rescued by the Bachpan Bachao Andolan not a single labourer had received a release certificate.

Meanwhile, the mine owners continue to make huge profits. Former Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala is reported to have auctioned quarries to private companies. A company like the Baba Mungipa Mines and Minerals, allegedly owned by Ajay Chautala and his father, is reported to have made a gross profit of Rs 260 crore in a period of two years.

Mines in Mirzapur are also owned by the sons and relatives of politicians. Among them is Lokpathi Tripathi, son of former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Bachcha Pathak, whose elder brother S Pathak was a former cabinet minister. All have frontmen under whom they operate.

Although civil society organisations have raised their voice against these exploitative practices, most of the time they go unheard or are put down. Following Supreme Court strictures against mineral quarrying, many mines today have put up boards to indicate they have closed down. But this is not the case. Entire mountains are being quarried in large tracts of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, with mining officials turning a blind eye to the goings-on.

It is because of this indifference that Mahugari remains a village largely of widows. A recent accident that killed several quarry workers belonging to Kodwari village in Mirzapur went unreported. The accident injured 22 people, including several girls aged between 12 and 16 years. Can the administration tell us what these young girls were doing working in a mine in Chunar? Obviously, the mining mafia still calls the shots.

InfoChange News & Features, November 2005