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“Village of widows”

Exposure to a pyrophyllite grinding unit deadly for men

Oct 10, 2022: The Hindu

Compensation has reached only some families in Madarangajodi, where men continue to die slow deaths following years of work at a now defunct pyrophyllite grinding unit

The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) has expressed deep concern over the misery and despair experienced by widows whose husbands died following exposure to a pyrophyllite grinding unit in Madarangajodi village in Odisha’s Keonjhar district.

According to an estimate, around 40 men, mostly aged below 40 years, died in Madarangajodi, which has since acquired the dubious epithet of a “village of widows”.

“When I visited Madarangajodi recently, seven to eight women who lost their husbands came to me and narrated how their lives had turned upside down over the past decade. After a labour court awarded compensation upon hearing the complaints of a few women, everyone thought the matter came to end there. But those who had worked in the grinding unit continued face slow deaths,” Ananta Naik, Member, NCST, told The Hindu.

“The lungs of most of the persons were affected as they had worked in the pyrophyllite grinding unit for long period. They had symptoms of tuberculosis. I have shared my visit report with the Odisha Chief Secretary and the Keonjhar District Collector, drawing their attention on plight of the women,” Mr. Naik said.

A Jharkhand-based mining company held the pyrophyllite mining rights over 53.8 hectares at Madarangajodi village, about 25 km from the district headquarter town of Keonjhar. The mining lease was executed in 1982. The health crisis began to surface when employees of the grinding unit started complaining of breathing problems due to repeated exposure to crystalline silica, which led to silicosis. The unit was then shut down on grounds of causing pollution.

Due to low levels of awareness, the men working in the grinding unit did not go for health check-ups. This turned out to be fatal. In 2007, widowed women from 16 families moved the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) seeking compensation, citing long engagement in a hazardous workplace. The NHRC directed the local labour office to look into the matter. The labour court granted compensation of ₹46 lakh to be shared among 16 families in 2017. The State Labour Department had, however, reported 29 deaths in the village.

“My husband, Ramakanta Khuntia, died in October 2021, after struggling with scarred lungs. He had worked in the pyrophyllite grinding unit for 14 long years. He had significantly shrunk, like those who died before him. I have nowhere to go with my two sons,” Minakhi Khuntia, who operates the village’s milling unit, said.

Ms. Khuntia said she had approached the operator of the pyrophyllite grinding unit a number of times for compensation so that her children could pursue their education, but compensation eluded her. Her husband’s older brother also died of silicosis.

Soudamini Behera lost her husband in 2010. Now, she struggles to take care of her two daughters. “I have received compensation of ₹4 lakh for my husband’s death. A sum of ₹2 lakh has been kept in the bank while I have already spent ₹2 lakh. The paltry amount cannot compensate the loss of an earning male member,” Ms. Behera said.

Both the women said men in Madarangajodi continued to die, and many who had worked in the pyrophyllite grinding unit still suffered from similar symptoms.

“The State’s bureaucracy has turned a blind eye to the problems of tribals. Officers should have worked keeping the pathetic condition of tribals in mind. When I was Member of Parliament from Keonjhar, the government’s financial situation was weak. Now, the administration has enough funds to alleviate the problem,” Mr. Naik said. He was a Lok Sabha MP for two consecutive terms, the first in 1999.

Radhakanta Tripathy, a human rights lawyer, said Madarangajodi village should be taken up as a special case and the government should come up with a comprehensive plan for its holistic development. “Widows or to-be-widowed belong to the marginalised section of society. All of them cannot take legal recourse to get their dues and the government should also not wait for direction from any constitutional forum to compensate their loss,” Mr. Tripathy said.

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