By Krishnavatar Sharma, with Clare Murphy-McGreevey and Nivedita Jayaram
As the nation prepares to celebrate Diwali, Aajeevika Bureau reflects on the plight of the unorganised workers behind this festival. A vast labour force produces the stone of Hindu temples, firecrackers, clothes and other products synonymous with the festival.
As many pay their respects at temples across the country, a dark truth hides behind the beautiful stone carvings: the stone itself is capable of killing. The stone carving industry in Pindwara block, Rajasthan is renowned for its ornately carved stones, supplying to temples within India and overseas. But large volumes of dust, with very high silica content, are released on carving with machines, exposing workers to a deadly respiratory disease called silicosis.
When Aajeevika Bureau began its work in Pindwara three years ago, this disease was completely outside the purview of the state. Through regular health screenings, we were able to ascertain that 1 in 10 workers in Pindwara suffer from silicosis, which affects over 1000 workers in the region. Yet, only eight factories are registered under the Factories Act, and less than 10% of these workers get Provident Fund (PF), Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) or insurance coverage. Aajeevika Bureau now assists workers and their families in accessing compensations and social protection.
Obscure value chains, where it is hard to identify the principal employer, and religiosity make it easy for the industry to escape responsibility towards its workers. Safety features in factories are done away with in order to cut the costs of production. “Yeh to bhagwan ka kaam hain” – “this is God’s work, why do the workers need any protection”, ask the employers.
The daily struggle for rights
The original meaning of Diwali is the triumph of good over evil, when Rama defeated the demon king Ravana. This struggle is alive and well in India today in women fighting for their rights and entitlements. Two examples illustrate this point.
- Women are demanding their rights to food and work from public officials. The solidarity groups Aajeevika Bureau runs have helped women overcome female seclusion and patriarchy in the villages, ranging from addressing gender discrimination and violence within their homes, to participating in Gram Sabha meetings.
- Women in Daad village, near Aspur, are standing up to injustices created in the name of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Here, police have frightened and terrorised households without toilets, publicly shaming them each morning. They have told women that they can only claim their rations if they have a toilet, when in fact there is no such Government ruling. Ration dealers can encourage households to build toilets, but they cannot withhold rations on this basis.
As we celebrate with our family and friends this Diwali, we should remember the Diwali tradition of helping those less fortunate, and join in their collective fight to claim their Government-mandated rights and entitlements.