Ilkal and the Granite Apocalypse

Ilkal State Taluk

Granite industries in Ilkal, Karnataka, act like nothing but a slow poison not just for the labourers who work there day in and day out but also the environment.

By Nikita Arora

In the scorching afternoon heat, Yogendra Nath of Rajasthan who is a worker at a granite industry in Ilkal, Karnataka, lifted a bunch of glistening tile slabs and carried them to a truck where the operator, Narendra Singh, who hails from Orissa, scribbled Nath’s name alongside a number in his not-so-black pocket diary which is scarred with spots of slurry from the monstrous machines in the factory.

Yogendra Nath, hurriedly, wiped the sweat off his forehead on to his vest and returned to break the rocks to form a new set of shining tile slabs. His friend, Raju, who is from Rourkela, spoke something to him in Oriya and pushed the uneven rocks cut by Nath in a machine as big as an elephant and, blades sharper than knives in a chef’s kitchen. “Neither do we have a fixed amount of working hours nor do we get a fixed amount of salary. It all depends on how much we work. If I produce more tiles, I get more money,” Nath said as he threw away the rock waste in a nearby barren field.

Meanwhile, the machines in the industry began to make loud noises and emit white dust-like materials which soon rested on the bodies of Nath and his friend Raju. “This is slurry. It sticks to our clothes and only when we wash them twice or thrice, it goes away. Sometimes it enters our eyes too. We have to wash them thoroughly then. It wastes too much time”, Raju exclaimed.

At this moment, cutting off Raju, Narendra Singh said, “I feel that a lot of time is wasted when you teach a newbie the mechanics of the machinery. If he learns it well, then good and if he does not, he dies while using it. And, then maalik(the owner) takes my class (scolds me) and all of us collect some money and give it to the family of the deceased.

“You see, it is not easy to operate these gigantic machines. You need to have a proper knowledge of it. You make one mistake and these blades are going to slice through the body. With new people joining this industry every day, it scares me how susceptible they are to making mistakes which can cost them their lives.”

For most labourers who work at the granite industries of Ilkal, this is the usual case scenario. There are a total of 25 granite industries in and around Ilkal (that had started before 2000) which employ around 700-800 workers approximately. Out of these 25 industries, none of them provides proper safety gear to the workers. Adding on to it is the meagre amount of wages that they get and the unsafe conditions that they have to work in.

Ever since the beginning, granite industries have encountered an increase in the rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This, therefore, has been one of the other reasons for the migration of workers from all over the world.

According to a study, The Dark Sites of Granite, published on the Indian Environmental Portal, working in granite industries without necessary safety gear can pose serious health risks. The reason for the same being that the granite consists of silica particles. Its cutting/drilling/grinding exposes the workers to silica dust. The study states, “The inhaling of silica dust particles can cause silicosis, an incurable lung disease that is highly prevalent among stone quarry workers. For preventing the exposure of workers to silica dust, dust can be captured or minimized at the source by using vacuums or water to suppress dust development. When water or vacuums are not feasible, an appropriate respirator should be used; however, respirators will not fully protect workers working close to the source. In most of the visited quarries workers were seen without any Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) when cutting, shaping or drilling stone. Especially the drilling activity generates a lot of dust and is very noisy.”

The labourers have time and again complained of the low quality of safety equipment provided to them. An operator, who does not want his name to be revealed, said, “The owner gets us equipment of really poor quality so much so that it becomes difficult for us to work with those. For instance, the gloves they get, they are either too big or too small or even quite slippery. If I wear those gloves and lift the tiles, they will slip from my hand. Even the goggles are of no use. They break easily and are too difficult to manage. I would rather work without pieces of equipment than let them take control of my work. All the more, I am quite used to this now. As long as I am getting money, it works well for me.”

The workers have no choice but to succumb to the unhealthy and unsafe working conditions of granite industries.  Every factory accounts for 20-25 labourers who are migrant workers. The draft Labor Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions 2018 by the Ministry of Labor and Employment, states that “Every employer relating to factory, mine, dock work, building or other construction work or plantation shall ensure and be responsible for the safety and health of persons who are on the work premises of the employer, with or without his knowledge.”

Dr K Rajendra, Deputy Commissioner and District Magistrate, Bagalkote district, said, “All the owners of the granite industries know that they ought to provide their workers with proper safety equipment ranging from masks to gloves and goggles to protect their eyes. It is their duty to do so and if they are not doing this, then the workers do have a right to file a complaint.”

Centre of Indian Trade Unions, CITU states that in India 3-4 workers are killed every year in quarry accidents alone. A report from CITU states “There was a death in one of the quarries in April 2016, where the worker fell from approximately 90 feet height and was left dead. It could have been prevented if he had the safety belt tied to the rope. These incidents happen once every three months. The quarry managements are not serious in providing proper PPE that can help workers.”

Data of the Ministry of Labour and Employment shows that 78 workers were killed in accidents in non-coal mines in the year 2011 alone. Out of these 17 workers were killed in granite quarries.

Another report, The Dark Sites of Granite, states that, “The deadly incidents of quarry workers are reported by the media very frequently. Moreover, there are many deadly accidents that remain unreported in the media or are not known to any outsider.”

It is imperative to note that most labourers who work at these granite industries hail from different parts of India and especially belong to North India. Yogendra Nath, for instance, initially worked as a farmer in Rajasthan and due to the decreasing amount of profits, he switched to being a full-time labourer. He said, “I come here and work for a couple of months or so and then head back to my place. Once, I get short of cash, I again come here in search of jobs. Earlier there were more requirements of labourers as of now because the machines do most of the work. The job, no matter how hectic, provides far better pay than farming. Both my children, a son and a daughter, study in a government school and things work out working well for me.”

A study titled, “Rock Bottom – Modern Slavery and Child Labour in South Indian Granite Quarries”, discusses the presence of migrant workers in the granite industries in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. What’s more, they are subjected to work in poor conditions that sans access to clean water.

It reads, “In most of the quarries workers live in very poor conditions. Workers with families are provided with a small hut, while workers without families are housed in a common room without proper facilities. The workers have limited access to healthcare or clean drinking water. Workplace safety measures are almost always inadequate. Workers are exposed to occupational hazards like silica dust, explosions and moving of heavy stones. Insufficient precautions are taken, personal protective equipment and safety guidelines are often absent.”

Illegal mining

The Granite Conservation and Development rules state minimum and maximum area for grant of a mining lease. The minimum area that may be granted shall not be less than one hectare. This too, however, ought to be renewed under a lease for ensuring mining activities to optimum death. The maximum area that may be granted under a mining lease shall not exceed fifty hectares.

The granting of the lease is provided by the State government in writing on the basis of proposed production level, geological or topographical conditions.

However, despite this law, many workers who work in the mines do not know about it. They continue to dig the mines deeper without proper knowledge of it. Munna, a mine worker, said, “I am not aware of the specifications as such. In fact, I am not sure if there are any specifications for digging the mines. The owner has never told us anything about it. All we know is that the land belongs to him and we have to extract as much rock as possible from it.”

The granite mining quarries, located in a secluded area, 10-15 km away from the Ilkal town, generally are not within the reach of the public. Apart from nearly 15-20 workers who mine the rocks, nobody visits these quarries. The owners, hence, take advantage of the situation and force the labourers to mine excess rocks. For instance, quarries of Krishna Granites and Gomatesh Granites are dug as deep as 2-5 feet (which is five times more than the actual limit). The workers claim that they are not informed by the owners about the limit to which they can dig these mines. One of them stated, “This land belongs to our owner and not the government. Therefore, we will dig as much as our owner asks us to. All the more, he pays us wages at the end of the day. Hence, the government has no business telling us what we should do.”

The workers who work in the mines are paid less than the ones who work in the granite industries but like them, they are also not given any sort of safety gear and neither are they informed beforehand about the safety precautions they ought to maintain while digging the mines.

Garima Panwar, IAS and Assistant to Deputy Commissioner said, “Despite repeated warnings time and again, the owners, as well as the workers, refuse to listen how dangerous can illegal mining be. More often than not, workers are bribed by the owners to dig mines deeper. They end up succumbing to the whims and fancies of the owners because they are paid quite less anyhow.

“The audit team goes time and again to visit the mining sites and fine the owners who do not abide by the standards of mining. Despite this heavy imposition of fines, owners do not care. They tend to be cautious for a week or so after the audit is done and post that, the cycle of illegal mining repeats itself.”

Largest mining quarry in the Hungund taluk that is dug more than the designated depth

Dinesh, a manager at Gayathri Enterprises, informed, “The granite is exported to China and Taiwan. And, for every cubic/metre $13,500 is earned”.

Giriraj, owner of the Govardhan Enterprises, on the other hand, stated that the stones that they get from the quarries are limited. “This limit is set by the Department of Mines and Geology which is measured in cubic metres. One can dig only a fixed amount of land and cannot exceed that.”

Akriti Singh, an advocate, said, “It is quite easy to defy the laws in mining because mining is done far away from the city and hence it is difficult to track by the auditors if the industries are following the standards or not. What’s more, even the government officials have a contract with these owners. Meaning to say, they too, get a share of the profit if they allow illegal mining to take place. I feel if there is someone who can stop this from happening is the workers. They can anytime stop the work and file a complaint. But, sadly, they are unaware of the laws and also, they are desperate. They need money after all to fill their stomachs.” 

Land, Noise and Air Pollution

Majority of granite industries are proving to be troublesome for people in the area because of the noise they produce. Sunita, owner of a handloom industry rewrite, please. said, “The noise from the industry is too much. Because of the financial prospects the industry has, people have been trying to set up machinery in their houses so that they can make small slabs and earn a bounty.”

People in the area have also complained of air pollution because of the dust resulting from the cutting of tiles. 

Guidelines of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board states that the tile waste ought to be ‘disposed of properly’ and ‘reused’.The disposal can be done on a vacant land far away from the city. However, the industries fail to do so. Dinesh stated that the waste created is in the form of slurry which comes from the cutting of tiles. And, because it is not quite dangerous, they throw it away. He said, “We use nearly 3-4 barrels of water in 10/15 days and we recycle it every time. Since the slurry is water-based, it is not really a problem. So, we throw it without properly disposing that of.”

Farmers too are affected by the waste of granite industries. A farmer in Amravati village said the quality of soil is degrading. He said, “Initially these industries were there in the Ilkal town area. But then they started expanding and now, some of them are located near the fields. Improper disposal of the granite slurry is causing a deficiency of nutrients in the soil which will soon make it difficult for us for a good yield.”


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