The Whiteness in Our Lives

A belligerent group of women stormed the offices of the District Magistrate in Mahoba district on the 15th of April. Their demand: that the stone crushing machines, specifically, that of one ‘Swami Raj Crusher’ be shut down or regulated. The white dust hanging constantly in the air as a result of the stone crushing machines, they claimed, was detrimental to their lives and that of their children.
In February 2016, while investigating the death of a labourer in a quarry in Kabrai, we stumbled on the cascading impact of this life threatening livelihood. The conditions of work on these often illegal and unregulated sites were shocking. When accidents occurred, which they did at a horrifying frequency, bodies were removed from quarries and made to disappear; the nexus of police, contractors and quarry owners set the price of bodies and families must accept without much of a murmur, or lose their means of livelihood as well as the security of their lives. Wages were regularly withheld. Still, for landless labour in this region, this was as good a bet as they were going to get to feed themselves and their families. The price of a day’s work, it must be added, was almost double that offered by the rural employment guarantee scheme, MNREGA, and, ironically, much more dependable. So what if you may lose a few limbs, or your life?

The current petition carried by women, the worse affected in this region, responds to the fact that the 200 stone crushing machines in just one, Kabrai block of Mahoba had pushed them, their immediate families, and generations into illness. We visited some of these women’s homes along the edge of the quarry and saw the layer of dust on their grains, heard complaints of the dust never quite washing out of food, grains, hair, throat, eyes. ‘Now we’re just used to it;’ ‘You’re here, so the machines have gone off. Otherwise we can’t hear ourselves,’ they raged. Women who were angry, cynical, at the end of their tether.
Sunaina, who lives in Kabrai, tells us, ‘The machine runs all the time, all day, all night. You wake up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror, and your face is covered in dust!’ An older Paana, less inclined to see the humour in the situation, said, ‘It’s been cold till now, so you could stay indoors. Now what? However you try and cover things, food, it gets everywhere. My husband died like this, in this dust, and now I’m sick, my children are sick all the time.’
 The petition is an angry culmination of years of complaints and protests – ‘We’ve been to Mahoba, Banda, Lucknow – to Mayawati! Nothing has happened,’ says a dramatic Radha Yadav. ‘It’s since 2004 that we’ve had this problem. It was the time of the BSP government. We went to Lucknow with a complaint when they set up these machines, that we had a problem with them. Our files ended up in the hands of some BSP workers who were from here, and who own quarries here. So no one listened to our complaints. On the contrary, my husband was threatened, that if he ever complained again, he would be shot.’
 The petition to the DM, Ajay Kumar, asked that crusher machine owners be obliged to follow rules about spraying water to settle the crusher dust, and requested the CMO to organize health checkups in Kabrai. Subsequently, a camp was held on the 16th of April.
But some women, like Kunti, were clear they wanted no sprinklers, only the machines to be removed.

 

The Chief Medical officer of Mahoba district, AK Varshney said the crushers come under the jurisdiction of the Mining department and the revenue departments of the administration. He knew of the dust, and claimed that he too had mentioned in some meetings that water be sprayed when the machines were on. This, he said, would mitigate any diseases. Although, out of the preliminary reports from the health camps, no chronic diseases had been detected on which he could comment or take action.
E Vijay Kumar Misra, the regional officer in charge of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, was asked what regulations existed in terms of the establishment of stone crushing machines near human habitation. He said that the older crusher machines had slowly had human habitations settle close to them, and that so far they had received no complaints or orders to remove these machines. The newer machines were being set up at a distance from human settlements.
As per our ground reports, the officials seemed grossly ignorant and negligent, on both counts: the location of the stone crushing operations, and the presence of chronic, life-threatening illness that pervades generation after generation of the inhabitants of Kabrai.