Raju Khushal – a warrior

May 10, 2012 in Victim Story

Exactly a year before emergency was declared in India, he was born – 26 June, 1974. His whole life passed  in emergency. When he breathed his last on December 5, 2011 his lungs had given up at only 37. He was front raw warrior in our struggle against silicosis. He was the first in the history of Agate industry to file claim for silicosis under Employees Compensation act. He was also the first to file petition under Bonded Labor Abolition Act. He, too, faced discrimination as other silicosis affected workers and could not marry.

He was from Dalit family. Dalits in Shakarpur would get Agate polishing ( shaping) as legacy. He studied up to 5th in Shakarpur primary school and then as child labor joined Japan Shoes House ( shop) in Khambhat at Rs. 300/- per month. He left after working for about two years.

He then went to his uncle Punambhai’s factory to learn giving shape to the stones. In few days he learnt the art to work on Bankda (emery wheel turning horizontal) machine. After working for 3-4 months, he went to the factory of Bhikhabhai Vashrambhai Parmar, Azad Pole, Shakarpur to work on Bankda. Again switched over to go to Mahendra Manubhai Vaghela where he worked for 6-7 months. Diwali festivals were nearing and he needed Rs.1,000/-. He requested Mahendrabhai to lend him this advance. In response, Mahendrabhai replied that he has no money to give but he can manage from Kishan Bhil. Kishanbhai agreed to lend him the advance on condition that Raju should work in his factory. Raju was in bad need of money and there was no time for negotiating his rates. He accepted the condition. The condition and lending, both were oral.

In this way, Raju started working for Kishan Bhil after Diwali in 91/92. The piece rates he used to get from his earlier employer was more than what he was getting here. But that was the tradition in this industry. Workers who take advance will be paid less than the market rates for their labor. On other hand, he was scared of the new employer as he had heard stories that he would physically coerce the worker if worker does not turn up for work. That fear also forced him to accept the rates offered. He worked at Kishan Bhil’s factory continuously for 17/18 years, till 2009.

Raju came for medical examination in 2007 when we started our clinic. He informed us that 20-25 of his colleagues working in the same factory had died of silicosis. So, when he was tested positive, he decided to leave the work. He joined Silicosis Victim Association and used to participate in the programs. When his employer noticed this, he started asking him to keep himself away from the association. He stopped going to work in February, 2009.

His both parents were doing the same work. Father died in 2002. Mother, too got silicosis. One of the younger brothers, Prakash (25) is also doing the same work.

When his father was sick, Raju asked his employer, Kishanbhai to lend him Rs.2,000/-. Kisanbhai refused to oblige. So, Raju asked his brother Prakash to ask for money from Kishan. Kishan paid him Rs.5,000/- on condition that he will work for him. Prakash was working at Mahendrabhai’s factory. Amount of advance he had taken from employer by and by had now piled up to Rs.17,000/-. As per the tradition of the industry, if Kishanbhai pays the entire amount to Mahendrabhai, he can avail services of Prakash. Prakash agreed and Kishan paid Rs.17.000 to Mahendrabhai to free Prakash from bondage. Now, Kishan owed Rs. 22,000 from Prakash. Some time back Punambhai paid Rs.24,000 to Kisanbhai to free Prakaksh. Now Prakash is bonded with Punambhai.

Hundreds of workers are working as bonded labor in this industry. Employers enjoy complete control over lives of workers. Since workers are afraid of the physical coercion, they do not come forward to register complaints. If worker wants to change over the occupation, one is not allowed to do so. There are several instance when worker goes to Baroda or Surat to work in some other industry, is forcefully taken back to Khambhat, when known. In such circumstances, Raju making written complaint before Collector bear significance. Raju first wrote to Collector, Anand district and later to the Chairman, National Human Rights Commission. Based on the documents he filed compensation claim in Anand Labor Court under Employees Compensation Act. His employer filed civil suit against him in Khambhat civil court. Hearing was fixed on 7 December and he was preparing for it.

He was regularly visiting our office and help us. In last two months his health deteriorated and had stopped coming daily. When he was hospitalized in November, 2011 I went to see him in hospital. I was shocked to see that his bed was in the lobby and same bed was shared by another patient. We immediately informed local press.  News appeared in the local daily next day with photo. It was then that he started receiving better treatment at hospital. He had lodged application under Right to Information Act before Health department in Khambhat. During his hospitalization, staff was angry with him for this application. This was his last public service.

In last 50 years hundreds of agate polishers died of silicosis at young age. But Raju was very different than all others. Very courageous and wise. He was man of few words but was very sharp. In his death we have lost a real warrior. We salute him. His memory would always inspire us.