Villages of the damned in toxic land

June 19, 2007 in Latest News

By; Sunday June 17, 01:39 AM

Singbhum, Jharkhand: The Roro hills, 20 kms from Chaibasa in Singbhum district, are a dump of toxic waste.The waste is the leftover of 70 years of asbestos mining, first by local players then by big ones, like the Tatas and the Birlas. The toxic waste lies on the hills and flows into 14 villages. “Our children have been affected and the people who worked aslabourers have been affected,” says Beer Singh Sundi, head of Roro village.

An estimated 0.7 million tonnes of toxic waste is now a playground for children. They come here to scavenge for iron scraps as well, which they sell for up to Rs 12 rupees a kilo. They also pick up chromium chunks. The powdery waste is giant slide for children but naked exposure to asbestos dust could result in serious diseases like asbestosis, cancer and asthma.

Roro is a village of former asbestos mine workers, mostly tribals. In the last three years 10 former workers have died here. Some, like 30-year-old Mangal Sundi, are barely alive. His young wife is helpless, resigned, refusing to talk.
“I worked in the crusher, where they produced asbestos,” says Sundi. Some of his symptoms match TB, but doctors can’t pinpoint his illness and so they offer no cure.

“Workers who are exposed to asbestos and they are suffering fromasbestos-related diseases like asbestosis and misothalamia. Doctors call them TB patients, as they want to save their employers from giving any compensation,” claims Gopal Krishna, coordinator of the Ban Asbestos Network.There is no assistance for Mangal Sundi from his former employers. “I am completely helpless; someone should help me recover,” he says.

Forget about health insurance even when tribals like him worked in the mine the wages were just seven rupees a day. “For each day of work we got a meagre seven rupees,” says Dumbi Boipoi, a former asbestos mineworker. Many former workers say they are going blind. “My eyesight is spoiltso much that I cannot recognize anyone from a distance,” says Dumbi Boipoi.

The tribals are in fact paying a double price. Over time, wind and rain have scattered the toxic waste on their land as well the result is barren fields, useless for farming.

“The dust gets mixed with water and flows into the fields and we run into losses,” says Beer Singh Sundi.

“The entire issue of managing mineral waste has been totally neglected and the Jharkhand asbestos tailings that are there in Chaibasa, Roro hills are a testimony how these lip service are seen in practice,” says Gopal Krishna.

There were no rules for waste disposal, or scientific closure of mines either. Companies exploit the land and then simply leave. Across the region there is just no evidence of responsible and sustainable mining. The consequence: not just one, but innumerable Roros dotting the mining regions of India.