Arshad Shaikh looks at the problems brewing in the stone quarrying industry. From labour exploitation to violation of norms, stone quarries are prone to fatal onsite accidents and the entire industry needs an overhaul in terms of regulation and management. Unfortunately, those who rule us have other priorities over good governance and so it is only civil society and the non-pliant media that needs to take up cudgels on behalf of the vulnerable being crushed under the quandaries of the stone quarry industry.
Safety of the labour and staff is the sine qua non of any workplace. Safety engineering is an entire discipline of science that assures an acceptable level of safety for the workforce at factories, construction sites and other places of industrial activity. It strives to reduce accidents and the risks associated with human error. The stone quarrying industry is prone to fatal accidents if safety norms or the principles of safety engineering are not followed.
Quarrying involves the use of explosives and working deep underground. As the industry is full of players who run their business devoid of any professional management, there are frequent accidents and subsequent loss of lives. In October, last year, a major explosion in Shivamogga, Karnataka claimed at least six lives. Reports point out that a massive explosion took place near a gravel and boulder crushing facility. The explosion was so massive that it sent shockwaves to the neighbouring districts of Chikkamagaluru and Davangere. The explosives made of gelatine were being transported in a truck when the mishap occurred.
A few weeks back, three workers and a driver lost their lives at the privately owned Venkateshwara Stone Crusher Unit, at Adaimithippaankulam in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. Reports suggest that six workers along with their heavy vehicles were working in a 300-feet deep stone quarry. A huge falling boulder trapped them underground and crushed them under the debris. The Tamil Nadu state government suspended its Assistant Director of Mines. The collector of Tirunelveli district blamed the suspended officer of dereliction of duty and failing to check the violations in the quarry.
According to the Hindu (20 May 2022) – “The management of the quarry was served a closure notice last month and instructed to suspend operations, after violations. Yet, the operations went on illegally until the fateful night. Perhaps, a random inspection in the interregnum could have prevented the loss of lives. The preliminary inquiry suggests the crusher unit, which has facilities for the manufacture of M-Sand and blue metal, had compromised safety along the vehicle path. The breach in the mandated 10 feet distance between the upper vehicle path and the immediate lower path is believed to have caused the falling boulder to plunge deeper into the quarry, aggravating the tragedy.”
The driver had been working in the quarry for the last four years for the weekly salary of Rs 5,000. It is being ascertained if the workers were registered with the EPFO. If they were registered then their families would be eligible for compensation and family pension. If not then legal action would be taken against the quarry owners.
So what ails the stone quarries? Why is the safety of workers compromised? Who is to be blamed and how can we resolve the problems of the stone quarrying industry?
The growing number of unlicensed quarries is a major challenge for regulating the industry. The courts order closures and to collect penalties but given the level of corruption in different strata of our officialdom, illegal quarrying continues unabated. Sometimes the quarry owners adopt the following modus operandi. They obtain a licence to mine say 100 cubic metres for a particular period of time. But they flout that limit and mine ten times that quantity.
Similarly, one part of quarrying is to reduce the size of the huge boulders into smaller sizes (aggregates) or into sand at the crushing units. Quarry owners get permits to transport say 100 truckloads but again transport say ten times that load. Trucks without transit permits can also be found. Obviously, they cannot conduct operations without greasing the palms of those authorised to check them. A huge negative externality of the quarrying industry is the severe damage caused to the environment and nearby areas.
Government rules mandate that quarries cannot operate within a certain distance from residential areas but these rules are flouted more than they are followed. The dust from the quarries settles on the plants, grass in nearby farmlands, and become unusable for animals. Those working in this industry develop a disease called silicosis. It is a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of fine crystalline silica dust. Although the symptoms are similar to that of Tuberculosis, the problem is that TB is curable whereas silicosis isn’t.
WHO WILL BELL THE CAT?
In October last year the apex court ruled that the NGT (National Green Tribunal) is empowered with suo motu jurisdiction. This enthralled activists from the “green” movement whereas players in the construction sector were concerned that the order by the Supreme Court may result in the closure of many quarries. While the growth and development of our country is paramount, we cannot afford to permit any business or industrial activity that harms people, the environment and flouts the laws of the country.
Typically, the permission to obtain a licence for quarrying requires permits from revenue, mining and geology and explosives departments. Pollution control boards and village panchayat also form part of those who are supposed to keep a check on the industry. The plunder of quarries cannot take place without their acquiescence. In a way, it is their collective failure.
One solution is to compare the GST returns and the amount of material mined in the quarries. Nevertheless, the issue is not that there are no rules or a system of checks and balances. The issue is the flagrant violation of the law and the lack of political will to tame those who are out to make a ‘fast buck’ in the highly lucrative quarry industry. For example, accidents due to the use of explosives are very common.
As per law, a minimum of three trained staff should carry out the required blasts in quarries, namely, a mine manager, a shot firer and a blaster. However, this protocol is hardly ever followed. The quarrying activity near the Western Ghats, an area critical for stable rainfall in India is slowly depleting its green cover. It is said that two expert committee reports (The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), also known as the Gadgil Commission and Kasturirangan Committee) constituted to recommend ways and means for saving our environment are waiting to be implemented in letter and spirit.
The construction and quarry lobby is politically well-connected and hence things continue to spiral out of control to the detriment of our environment and loss of precious lives. There is a moral dimension to the entire issue too that is rarely discussed.
Unless we develop a sense of moral accountability before a Supreme Authority who watches us and sees us even when nobody else can, we will not abide by the rules and continue to bypass them seeking material benefits. Belief in God who is also the “Master of the Day of Judgment” is critical to ensure laws are not just made but also followed.