13, Oct 2022 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
Birbhum is a small district in the state of West Bengal, where a part of the Chhota Nagpur plateau is situated. A large number of tribal communities live in this district. There’s a saying in the region that just like one can hear Baul’s playing Dotaaras here, they can also hear the sound of stones breaking and falling apart.
The sound of the stones refers to the stone quarries and mines that dot the district. Birbhum is rich in various mineral resources and has many stone quarries from which good quality black stone and China Clay are obtained. Birbhum also has several rivers like Ajay, Mayurakshi, Brahmani and Bashlei that account for very high-quality sand. The ‘Patelnagar House’ at Patelnagar in Birbhum started the first China Clay production around 1956. Birbhum’s stone, sand and China Clay, are supplied all over India. These are said to be good enough to build houses. Needless to say, a large part of the district’s population work in stone quarries, mines and sand wharves.
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But very recently the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) have allegedly found illegal mines and sand wharves across the district, which in turn led to more such teams looking for more such illegal operations. This has resulted in the complete shutdown of various stone quarries and mines, as a result of which, thousands of workers, mostly Adivasis (India’s indigenous tribal communities) have lost their only source of livelihood, causing much anxiety.
31-year-old Parameshwar Baksey, who used to work in one such facility told us, “We are completely dependent on the stone industry. We have been involved with the stone industry since we were children.” The situation had been bleak during the Covid-19 induced Lockdown as well. “The stone quarry was closed for a long time during the Lockdown. During the lockdown we were unemployed at home and our situation was miserable,” he recalled. Today, he is trying to put food on the table for his family of five by working as an agricultural labourer in other people’s fields, and laments his inability to just leave and work as a migrant worker in another state.
Of the 217 quartz mines and stone quarries in Birbhum, only six were found to have valid documents. The rest came under the scannerin 2016, following an order by the National Green Tribunal. Last year, the central team examined everything from stone quarries to crushers and found evidence of them being run illegally. Birbhum district has a total of 1,700 stone crushers, all allegedly operating illegally. The CBI and ED have also been investigating an alleged scam involving illegal mines and quarries in the region, and it was their intervention, that sounded the death-knell for the facilities.
In fact, stone quarry owners from the Mohammed Bazar Block even approached the District Magistrate with documents they say are valid, but a renewal could not be granted as the offices were shut due to the Lockdown. Even today, the matter remains unresolved.
And then there is the impact on the health of mine and quarry workers. Most people suffer from respiratory diseases. A disease called Silicosis is spreading throughout the region.
According to the health portal of the government of West Bengal, “Silicosis is an incurable lung disease caused by inhalation of dust that contains free crystalline silica.” It further says, “Silicosis patients are also vulnerable to pulmonary tuberculosis infection, which often becomes difficult to treat and with uncertain treatment outcome.”
Understandably, residents and quarry workers are experiencing tremendous anxiety due to this, and their predicament is compounded by the fact that their already meager resources are shrinking daily in the absence of a steady source of income in wake of the closure of the mines.
“There are many risks involved in working in the mines. The dust and sand take a toll,” says Baksey. He hopes workers are granted some kind of an allowance to tide over their dire situation.
With the closure of mines and quarries dealing this double whammy to their income and health, the residents have now come together and demanded that the mine owners of Birbhum restart the mines and begin their trade only with valid documents. This will provide small respite to the struggling families.
This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by aspiring journalist and student activist Ripon Sheikh from Birbhum in West Bengal. In these reports Ripon looks at the people around him – migrant workers, the families they leave behind, agricultural labourers, women who do housework, rural artisans and young people, with a keen sense of compassion.
Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.