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Apeksha Bagchi

IWB Blogger

Read The Plight Of Keonjhar Widows Fighting Against A Mining Factory That Took Their Husbands Away

  • IWB Post
  •  December 5, 2017

 

There is a village of widows in the Keonjhar district of Odisha. With more than 50 widows left to fend for a living on their own, the village was not always this desolate. So, who is to be blamed for this terrible scenario – the establishment of a mining factory.

It was the year 1982, village Madarangajodi. With the establishment of a mining factory near them, men from the village and surrounding areas thought that their hopes of having a steady income had been finally fulfilled. But little did they know that it was the siren of the inevitable doomsday.

Initially, the men were either working as agriculture laborers or migrating to other places to work in construction sites but joined the factory in hopes of getting a better salary that would eradicate their poverty. Not only did the meager incomes dash out their dreams of a better life, it snatched it away from them and their families.

The men died of silicosis, a fatal disease that affects the lungs while working in the pyrophyllite grinding unit of the factory.

“Even after washing and cleaning with soap many times, there was a white layer all over the body. Some persons developed skin disease,” told sixty-year-old Padmabati Barik whose husband was the first to succumb to the breathing problem.

“We didn’t know this white powder would be so fatal. I witnessed my brothers and other men suffer from breathing problem at an early age and succumb to death,” said Gangadhar Dehuri, now 50 and one of the few survivors. “I worked in the loading department and not in the grinding unit, so I survived.”

But others were not as lucky as he was. Many battled the debilitating disease for years before giving up when the symptoms aggravated.

“Initially he developed breathing problem. Due to poverty and lack of money, we avoided going to the hospital. Later when it became worse, we went to a nearby health center,” said Sarojini Khuntia lost her husband in 2006. The doctors informed that he suffered from silicosis, a fatal disease of the lungs caused by constant inhalation of crystalline silica. But he had no choice but to continue working in the mining factory like many others, how else would they feed their family?

Women were widowed at the age of 19 and 20 left to look after their children alone. Yes, alone because the company responsible for this heart-wrenching death toll refused to compensate the families for their terrible losses.

Mining

Image source

“We asked the company owner to give us compensation as the 50-odd men in these villages lost their lives to occupational hazards while working in the mining company,” said Sarojini, one of the widows. “But he said the laborers might have died due to liquor or other reasons, though we had medical reports that mentioned silicosis as the cause of death.”

The factory had violated the safety rules by not providing safety gear to the employees and had not been conducting regular health check-ups. The poor families of the deceased laborers fought against the company, some sold their ornaments, while others borrowed money from moneylenders by mortgaging their house or farmland.

A social activist of Keonjhar moved the plea to the National Human Rights Commission that directed the Keonjhar district administration to look into the matter, who visited the village in 2013. Though the villagers said 50-odd male members died of silicosis, the labor department attributed only 29 deaths to silicosis.

It has been nine years since then and the widows are still waiting for their compensation promised to them except a useless pension of Rs 1000 per month. The extreme poverty has plagued the village with issues like child labor, child trafficking, denial of education to girl children and early marriage.

There is a possibility of the company owner moving a higher court which if happens would mean justice delayed once again. “We will not give up our struggle for compensation,” declared the women. “Because we have seen how painful their suffering was, during the last days of their lives,” said Sarojini.

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