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Loreen Regnander - Blog 2: The Women of Lal Kuan (untold stories and other reflections)

Loreen Regnander - Blog 2: The Women of Lal Kuan (untold stories and other reflections)

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“People cannot be developed; they can only develop themselves” - Budd Hall

 When you visit New Delhi, you might notice the greenness and grandeur of the trees, the diversity of birdsong, the intricate maze of roads and highways that are lined with cows, dogs and footsteps of millions of Delhiites; trailing lines of colorful silks and cottons, floating like butterflies, cutting through the dusty air and along the sidewalks - some hand laid and some needing repair. You might also notice the distinctly Indian character of the buildings, picturesque monuments, pink, blue and yellow houses. All of these images, sounds and feelings act as monumentally significant features to everything that is now known as New Delhi (especially to an outsider like me). However, what you won’t see are the thousands of workers who have died for this city, who have breathed their last breath to build this city; the workers whose wives and children still live amongst the hidden ruins of Lal Kuan, a once booming industrial area in south Delhi, employing thousands of Northern Indian migrants in laborious rock and stone crushing industries in the late 1960’s. I had the opportunity to meet and speak with some of the remaining community members, who share their stories and histories with me, all of which are tainted with one word, Silicosis.

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(From left to right, Kesari with grandson, and daughter and S. A. Azad in Kesari’s home, Lal Kuan, India 2017)

In 1947, when India gained its independence, there was an intense push for the development of urban cities such as New Delhi. These government backed development incentives resulted in mass migrations of (mostly) lower caste people from the northern regions of India. Many of the migrant labourers belonged to Rajasthani Dalit (SC/ST) communities, and came for the promise of new work opportunities, and with hopes of providing better livelihoods and more income for their families. Both husbands and wives and sometimes children would be employed in the stone mines and factories, where “dust particles in the air would be so thick you couldn’t see one foot in front of you”, says Kesari, a resident of Lal Kuan for more than 50 years. Overall, there were about 100 crushers in the area, which employed more than 4000 migrant manual laborers (ICMR, 1999). Breathing in these particles for workers and people who were living in these areas was a fact of their daily lives, and so consequently, when these workers all began developing serious respiratory illnesses, and so it was necessary to ask, was there an occupational health hazard in the areas where these people were working?  

Unfortunately these illnesses, were often wrongly diagnosed as Tuberculosis (TB) which at the time was not recognized as an occupational disease, and therefore funding or relief from the Gov’t was non existent (ICMR, 1999). Diagnosis of any kind of occupational lung disease has often been delayed due to the lack of consideration for any diseases outside of the textbook variety. Doctors are often not trained to think of diseases as being anything other than biological issues, as a result of this, they fail to factor in the influence of occupational environments. Doctors are institutionally and systemically produced, and often do not to recognize a patient as the sum of their environments and social activities, but as a separate “entity” which are treated for their health conditions, but not addressing the causation of the disease. This is a classic case of curative vs causative medicine; treating the symptoms in isolation does not address the cause of the disease. Instead, considerations such as clinical history, occupational history, evaluation of exposure, investigatory tests, exposure tests and general tests must be considered when evaluating the occupational health and safety of a patient (DISHA & PRIA, 1996). 

Mr. S.A. Azad, a human and social activist, has been working in and around the Lal Kuan communities for more than 25 years. Azad has acted as a catalyst, liaison and advocate for the people suffering from silicosis and other respiratory illnesses. It was Azad who motivated these communities to seek further treatment and get second opinions from Doctors, who would recognize the disease for what it was, instead of wrongfully treating patients for Tuberculosis. 

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(From right to left: S.A. Azad, Kamala (Choti), Sugana and daughter of Kesari, in Lal Kuan, India, 2017)

Upon arriving to Lal Kuan with Mr. Azad, I first meet with a woman by the name of Sugana. She tells me that her mother and father migrated here in the 1960s from Didwana, Nagor district of Rajasthan, and initially settled in Prahladpur. Her parents were employed by contractors in the local stone mines and crushing factories as casual labourers. Some years later, Sugana met her future husband while also working in the stone mines and went on to have 6 children after marriage. Since this time, Sugana’s husband, along with her 2 sons and 2 of her daughters have died, all from what she describes as “breathing illnesses”. She goes on to describe, how the women working in the mines would be paid half the wage of men. It has now been 18 years since her husband passed away from an undiagnosed repiratory illness, and she has only received some compensation in the form of “relief” money, which is offered in lieu of losing the main household income earner (her husband). This however, is not compensation for being sick with silicosis (as an occupational illness from working in the mines). Currently, Sugana remains in Lal Kuan with her 2 daughters.

In the 1980s, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) visited the Lal Kuan site, and found that the people were not suffering from Tuberculosis, but in fact were likely suffering from silicosis. This finding led to a suit of Public Interest Litigations (PILs)  to close the stone crushing mines which was supported by multiple groups including,  PRASAR, Delhi Forum, Toxic Link, Popular Education and Action Centre (PEACE), and the Human Rights Law Network and Centre for Education and Communication. These PILs and petitions brought nationwide attention to silicosis as an occupational disease, and resulted in the Supreme Court order to close all of the stone crushing mines in 1985.

Normally, these workers should have been covered under the Workmen's Compensation Act 1923, but because the Act only covers organized sectors of work, stone crushers fall between the legal cracks, as part of an unorganized sector. These are the failings of a political and legal system which does not have adequate protected rights coverage, such as a single Act to ensure the health and safety of workers. Canada’s health legislation for example, includes all aspects of health and basic safety rights such as; the Right to Know, the Right to Participate and the Right to Refuse (any kind of work environment). By comparison, India laws are very limited in scope and have failed hundreds of thousands of industrial workers, including the Lal Kuan communities.

Kamala (or Choti), a small framed women in bright yellow flowery outfit, describes a similar past. Her family migrated from Sieker, in northern Rajasthan to Lal Kuan. Kamala was born in Lal Kuan, her father worked as a casual labourer in the stone mines, she later followed suit. She was not able to attend school or obtain any kind of formal education because of the severe poverty they were living and working in. She describes working in the mines with neither any safety equipment nor training or awareness of safety of health issues. She describes how the shutting down of the mines left thousands of workers unemployed. The contractors were moved out of Lal Kuan, but the residents remained, awaiting a future sickness they could not have predicted. “There were no government programs in place to help the unemployed,” Kamala explains. “In the future, the government needs to develop policies and take action so that these unrecognized casualties can be prevented.” 

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(Sugana (with granddaughter) and Kesari laughing with S.A. Azad in Kesari’s home, Lal Kuan, India, 2017)

Kesari came to Lal Kuan almost 50 years ago, from Nagor. She and her family worked in the rock mines, where she also met her future husband. They had 5 children, all of whom still live in the Lal Kuan area. However, Kesari explains, “My husband died at the age of 50 of an undiagnosed respiratory disease, and I also have a respiratory illness”. This is a clear example of how the government has still not made adequate progress in ensuring that the people of Lal Kuan are diagnosed and treated for their illnesses. A message that Kesari would like to give the Govt of India, is “to listen to the grievances of and take measures to properly treat and compensate victims and patients of silicosis, and to take measures to prevent occupational diseases in the future.” 

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(Kesari, standing in front of her home in Lal Kuan, India, 2017)

The unwavering efforts of Mr. Azad have succeeded in mobilising communities and spreading awareness about silicosis as an occupational health crisis. Azad’s organization, PRASAR emerged out of this drive, beginning at a local scale, and then spreading through word-of-mouth across many regions of India. Mistreated workers from corrupt labor industries continue to contact Mr. Azad with their stories, in hopes of fighting for due justice. 

Despite, what can only be described as a series of deeply unfortunate events, with very little justice and recognition, the women of Lal Kuan exude a quiet strength that shines through in their smiles, laughter and the comfort they feel around each other and their families. They welcomed me into their homes without hesitation, and entrusted me with their stories and words. I feel unbelievably privileged to have met these women of Lal Kuan, and I hope their words and stories can be passed along and shared.

These stories are just a small, but important, part of a much larger socioeconomic system that works for some but is predisposed to fail for the majority. Is it a question of development? Perhaps. Development at what cost, and for whom?

Since coming to India, this past month I have struggled with many various social and environmental concepts and have been plagued with questions that I don't yet have answers for. What is development and for whom? At what cost? Where do I fit in here? Is it my place to even be here? How is addressing environmental issues so far down on the priority list, when all I've learned in school is how addressing social issues alongside environmental issues is the only way forward? This looks different here, because you cannot implement environmental initiatives when people are struggling with basic social needs! This looks much different on the ground. I look around and see thousands and millions of people littering on the ground, seemingly careless of its after effects, and I am struggling with understanding the why behind these actions. I am trying to understand the cultural and social backbone of all that is India, with my narrow minded worldview. So far, the biggest highlight of this internship has been the opportunity I was given to meet Mr. S. A. Azad, a local social activist, who introduced me to the communities of Lal Kuan, which lie on the southern outskirts of Delhi. It was meeting these individuals and hearing thier stories that helped me make a bit more sense of my position here in Delhi and at PRIA. For, I believe, simply listening (and documenting) thier stories allowed me to feel purposeful in my being there. As I move forward with this internship. I hope these struggles and questions will continue to guide me, and contribute to a wider understanding of the complex social and environmental issues here in India, and how there are layers upon layers of complexities that you cannot simply address individually.