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Polluting Industries, Environment and Workers’ Health: A Case for Intervention

by Mukul Sharma, 6 September 1997

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The Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 32, No. 35, August 30 - September 5, 1997,

... The case of M. C. Mehta vs. Union of India, popularly known as "Ganga Matters" ... for the first time establishes a noble principle: a polluting industry which damages the environment outside the factory, simultaneously creates havoc for the health of the workers inside the factory. Hence the industry has to pay the price of its pollution to the citizens, in general, and to sick and suffering workers, in particular ...

The court judgement is important, but (how it) was achieved is as important as the judgement itself (and) gives a concrete example of (how) environmental initiatives, workers’ organisations and support groups, people’s science activists and others can work together on the burning issue of industrial pollution and can promote their cause mutually ...

It started in the distant tribal village of Chinchurgeria, Jhargram, in the Midanapore District of West Bengal state. A stone crushing unit, Surendra Khanij, started here in September 1987. The unit was manufacturing quartz powder from quartzite stone and supplying it to different glass manufacturing units ...

(Within three to four years, twenty workers died and twelve remain chronically ill.) ... Most of the workers were suffering from silicosis, one of the most deadly occupational lung disease in India ...

Had it not been for the existence of the Quark Science Centre at Jhargram, it would never have been possible to know the fate of the workers of the Surendra Khanij.

(According to) Bijan Sharangi, a 33-year-old school teacher and secretary of the Quark Science Centre, "In early 1993, we came to know of a series of workers’ death and diseases in Chinchurgeria, through two foresters of the forest department ... We tested at least 100 villagers and then found that several of them were suffering from silicosis ... We organised a massive signature campaign among the villagers and people of Jhargram, demanding closure and compensation. We also organised many street corner meetings. When these programmes did not bear any fruit, hundreds of villagers from Chinchugeria and nearby villages assembled in Jhargram in April 1993 and sat on indefinite dharna (sit-in) outside the SDO office. Thereafter the SDO ordered the closure of the factory, which has been closed till date" ...

(Later) Nagrik Manch, (citizens’ platform or forum) a labour support group in Calcutta, along with six central trade unions, intervened in the Supreme Court and filed a public interest (law suit) ...

The story does not stop here, the compensation only a beginning ...

... It is indeed rare to find a hospital in the country established by workers and their unions. Shrmajivi Hospital, only 3.5 kms away from Howrah Station and at walking distance from famous Belur Math, is an inspiring endeavour of workers of a closed and sick industry. They started it out of their own necessity and also to expand the union’s activities in a hitherto neglected field. But slowly it has become an essential activity of the whole community in that area, and local teachers, artists, doctors, social workers and students have all become involved in it in one way or another.

Surrounded by factories, mostly closed small shops and houses, Shrmajivi Hospital stands out on main road, going towards Howrah. The hospital is like a home - a small old house of five and six medium-size rooms, a staircase going through the verandah and a first floor with tin-shaded working space. The rooms are exceptionally neat and clean ... (but everything bears) a simple, raw, robust look ...

"Of course the charges are just here, but we do not come here only for that reason. In this area alone, there are two government hospitals and dozens of private nursing homes. They also provide treatment to patients. Even if one could afford them, one comes here. We feel at home. Here we feel as if we will live longer," says local resident Pratap Sinha, who has undergone a long treatment in the hospital ...

... They decided in April 1997, to set up a bi-weekly occupational disease detection centre at the hospital, which will be one of the rare ones in West Bengal. To deal with the problem of industrial accidents, they would also like to develop ... micro-vascular surgery in future. "But this all will develop only if the participation of workers, their unions and other people will develop. Seeing the present situation one is very hopeful.