#Toxic Air IX – ‘Fresh Air Is Luxury For Me’

Working amid sawdust, carpenter Lalu Sharma, 40, moans the fact that he has traded the fresh air of his village for a better livelihood in the city. But has the quality of life got truly better, he often wonders.   I remember the air in my village –pristine, pure and fresh. One long, deep breath, early in the morning would recharge me and set the tone for the rest of the day. It is not possible in big cities, where the vehicles never stop running, where the air is laden with dust and pollutants. But the life and the air of big cities has now seeped into small-town India. Since I have grown up in a village, breathing fresh air, I can feel the difference in the air more acutely, more pronouncedly, unlike big city people. Air pollution has started scarring everyone’s lives. A craftsman like me, who has to work extensively with wood is probably impacted more. I work at a furniture shop as a carpenter and have been in this profession for nearly two decades now. Twenty years ago, I did not pay much attention to my health — there was not much to worry about except the large amount of sawdust that went into my system. Every day I single-handedly cut several pieces of wood –from small furniture to big wooden doors. Besides dealing with the sawdust, I have to put up with the nauseating smell of chemicals; and the ear-splitting sounds of machines. Now, apart from these work hazards, I have to worry about the growing levels of pollutants in the air. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. After these stressful work hours, I want to breathe clean, fresh air –but that has become a distant dream. Pollution from growing number of vehicles, toxic fumes from garbage dumps and the hazards at work, have probably shortened my life. My colleagues and I suffer from burning eyes, sensitive skin, and increased sensitivity to sound and smell after work-hours. Cough is also a constant companion, especially during the winters. Since I work with wood, I understand how precious our trees are. I also take care to dispose off the sawdust and other waste from our shop properly. I try to make sure that I put every piece of wood to good use, so that nothing goes waste. I try and initiate conversations around green living if I see a sensitive customer. And I try to keep it short, succinct and light. For every tree that is cut, a tree should be planted.  I have to earn a living, but that doesn’t mean I can’t care about the environment in my own little way. The need of the hour is to live in harmony with nature — and I know for sure that we are running out of time.]]>

#Toxic Air II – ‘A Storehouse Of Pollutants’

Baliya Devi knows the waste from the useful. A rag picker in a small town of Jharkhand, she says municipal authorities care little about waste segregation and prefer incineration. And that is causing citizens to breathe poisonous air daily.   Garbage for others is livelihood for me. I have been a rag picker for as long as I can remember. So in a way, my body is a storehouse of pollutants and infections. We smell, breathe and handle toxic waste, and other dangerous things, day in and day out. Other people just cover their faces, squirm and move away from smelly dumps but how would we survive if we did the same? My work area in Jharkhand is home to a famous Shiv temple, which means there are a lot of people coming into the town both in hordes.  During the holy month of shravan, the number runs into lakhs. Though there is a huge green cover, yet with each passing day, our town is getting more polluted. The waste management in the city is appalling. The concept of separating the waste does not exist. The easiest way to get rid of the waste for our municipal workers is incineration. And this means spread of toxic fumes in the air of this divine place. We the rag pickers face the worst. We could have earned some money from sorting out non-biodegradable material if everything wasn’t burnt. But our job is to earn a living out of the waste. So even after it is burnt we have to scavenge through it, looking for leftover ‘treasures’. Two years ago, I had got the job a daily-wage sweeper but it didn’t last long. I had to return to rag picking. As I am ageing, the impact has begun to tell. My eyes start burning every time I go near a garbage dump. My skin gets remain excessively dry because of the dust and pollution; sometimes it cracks and bleeds too. When that happens, I pray to find discarded bottles of lotions with some leftover. To make things worse, men here often urinate and throw soiled diapers etc on garbage dumps. Do they not know that someone is going to sort that garbage out with their hands? For many people, we are non-existent and invisible. At the end of the day, if I have survived without an infection, I thank God. But I worry about my children. They can easily catch infections from us. Living in poverty means malnourishment, which makes us and our children even more vulnerable to diseases. Pollution is not just a work hazard, I can feel its presence everywhere. At home, we use traditional chulhas for cooking, which produce more smoke. With a large family to feed, we are surrounded by smoke at home almost all the time. Coughing and wheezing are a year-long phenomenon. I do not have access to a robust healthcare system. So illness is something that we have to live until my body gives away. My husband is a daily wage laborer and lays bricks at construction sites. Our incomes therefore, are meagre. On a very good day, I am able to earn around `300. And all of our savings go into our children’s education. We can’t afford to spend it on our healthcare. My children are the only ray of hope for me. But look at the world we are leaving behind for them. My children and their teachers have told me about pollution, and how incineration of garbage can warm up the planet leading to horrible things. People like us, marginal farmers and poor fisherman, will be most-affected by it, I have learnt. I wish I could tell the netas and officers that we rag pickers can tell them a thing or two about waste management. Every city or town can be identified by the waste it produces and we rag pickers know the city or the town’s garbage like the back of our hands. We have the local expertise. But getting involved in policymaking is a distant dream for me. All I expect from the world is a bit of respect and regard for the work I do.]]>

#Toxic Air I – ‘Dust, Pollution Part Of Life’

Raghu* keeps walking as he tells LokMarg how his respiratory system and skin have been affected by dust and pollution. He doesn’t even have time to stop lest he would miss on the ‘passenger auto’. His hands are callous and the skin is broken. ‘It wasn’t like this when I started work,’ Raghu says.   I sometime watch television at paan-gutkha shops here in Deoghar (Jharkhand) on my way home in the evening. My friends and I laugh wryly every time I see privileged people on television talking about how badly their countrymen are affected by air pollution. They sound like a joke. Do people sitting in those shining studios ever spare a thought about people like us? I am a construction worker and I too am forced to make peace with toxic air, even though my exposure to air pollution is much more prolonged than any of the experts or politicians sitting and making idle talk in television studios. My day starts early in the morning as I start walking on dusty kaccha roads waiting for a ride to come by. If I am lucky, I get to hang on the sides of buses or sawari autos. On rare occasions, I am able to get a seat. But then the co-passengers cringe with disgust. Who would want a dirt-laden labourer sitting next to him/her? People talk about air pollution in Delhi and other big cities, but the truth is that it’s a national problem. The air in villages and small towns is equally bad. Smog is probably not visible here but the amount of construction happening in this town is insane. A new building is being constructed after every 50 metres or so. Every time a lorry unloads bajri (red sand) or reta (sand), it is impossible to breath. My job is to lift soil, bricks, sand and small stones used for construction, for nearly eight to nine hours. I first have to dig the soil, or sieve the sand or arrange the bricks before I can start carrying the load. In short, I am in close contact with dust particles throughout the day. My load can go up to as much as 40 kilograms at a time. Add to it, the pollutants from industries, coal plants, vehicles and stubble burning.  And I have more breathing issues than the grandparents in family!  Sometimes I have a lot of difficulty in breathing and it becomes worse during winters. Breathing isn’t the only issue. Take a look at my hands. The skin has got dry and flaky; sand and other dust particles clog my skin pores and make my skin burn. My hands were not like this when I started to work at sites. My friends, who work as labourers in Delhi, sometimes get masks to cover their faces while working. They told me that being the capital city, many NGOs actively conduct regular health check-ups of construction workers, and distribute masks. Sadly that is not the case in small towns. Here if you fall ill, you have to ignore it and keep working. Labourers, who work for hotel projects are slightly better off. At least they take care of the working conditions of the labourers. But things are bad, where I work. They use huge machinery. We are surrounded by big vehicles such as JCB machines, tube-well boring machines, and road rollers that keep plying at the construction site– the dust never settles. I understand this is part and parcel of the vocation I have chosen for myself, but if the construction pace was a little slower, perhaps we could get a little space, where we could take little breaks to sit and relax. We do not even have masks to shield us from the pollution, my red gamcha is the only protection I have. To add to our woes, we mostly live in the poverty-ridden localities, where water shortage is often a problem. As a result we do not even get to clean ourselves properly after having been exposed dust and other pollutants. Indiscriminate dumping of garbage is also a problem in our locality. We live in a haven for infections and the pollution makes us more prone to them. Cold, cough, running noses, burning eyes and headaches have become a part of my life. The situation is worse for female construction workers and older labourers. We earn around Rs 300-400 per day and we cannot afford to spend money on medication. We just pick ourselves up and march on. *(This is a fictitious name. The construction worker was just not interested in identifying himself despite frequent requests. All he wanted was his sufferings be known to others)  ]]>

#SheToo – ‘Construction Workers Harassed Verbally'

A construction labourer in Jharkhand, Nirmala says the toughest days of her work come when she is menstruating. There is hardly time to change soiled clothes and no access to toilets or privacy. And if you slow down the pace of work, the contractor and his sidekicks make sexist taunts.   It’s not difficult to get work on construction sites in Deoghar (Jharkhand) where realty projects have picked up over the last five or six years. My husband, 32, moved to Delhi for better wages, but I work in Deoghar, which is near our native place. Although it is easy to find work – you only need to reach early at the town square and wait to be selected by contractors – the eight-hour work schedule can be back breaking. But we need the extra income if we want our two children to get good education. There are separate wages for a ‘mistri’ (skilled) and ‘beldar’ (unskilled) labour. Women, always unskilled, are paid lesser than men, but we have no grouse there. This is a conventional division. Santhal (read tribal) women get picked first as they are stronger. Women who accompany their husbands are picked next. Single women are the last to be hired, sometimes at a price lower than the ruling daily wage.

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Our ordeal begins after that. The contractors and their sidekicks keep mouthing insults at women workers for slowing down the pace of work. Their choicest abuse is: ‘Tera mahina chal raha hai kya’ (Are you having your period)? This is followed by chuckles and snide remarks from all around. At times, you feel like throwing the mortar at their faces, but then you will get blacklisted and never get work. Three years ago when my second child was very small, I would bring him to the site and breastfeed him during work. Many an eye would follow me while I took him for feeding. Each time the child cried, it will draw remarks, either lewd or insulting. Rarely would someone intervene and scold the lechers. I have myself never encountered a sexual proposition but yes, these are common at our kind of work. Tribal women, for instance, are considered easy game by these wolves. It also depends on the contractor. Many of them have a reputation. Usually at the end of the workday when wages are distributed, they target their victims who are coerced by them. Everyone knows it but nobody speaks about it. The golden rule is to keep to yourself, ignore catcalls and physical overtures like squeezing your hand. I also never tell people that my husband is away in Delhi. The toughest days at work are when I have my period. We do not have access to expensive sanitary napkins; we wash and reuse old clothes. But the eight-hour work plus nearly two hours of travel time can be very stressful. Even when you get some time to change or clean, there are no places where one can do it. Almost always, we have no access to a washroom. Because of heavy construction activity, there is no empty space to relieve ourselves. There are so many people, vehicles and raw materials lying around which can make changing our soiled clothes, let alone relieving ourselves, a nightmare. The situation is worse when you are working near marketplaces or at a renovation project. Public washrooms are meant only for men; women have to find corners and squat sometimes in full public view. The men ogle while women passersby turn up their noses at us in disgust. Nobody asks us how we feel. I suppose farm labourers have a better life. Even though they get three-fourths of our wages, they get food twice. The wives of farm owners are very considerate and give them access to their washrooms on tough days. But farm work is difficult to get and is seasonal. Besides, the farms are shrinking by the day; even big farmers say the yield is no longer worth the labour. It is my children and husband, who calls up daily, who keep me going. My husband trusts me, he has no issues that I work with other men. He is a kind soul, unlike many of the drunken husbands in the village who beat their wives. He has promised to shift us soon to Delhi, where my children can get English education. I have met some NGO women who come to visit our village and teach us about menstrual hygiene and personal healthcare. I want my daughter to also take up such a role when she grows up and fight for the rights of female construction workers.  ]]>

PDS Failure Behind ‘Hunger Deaths’ In Jharkhand

By Smriti Sikri The failure of the Public Distribution System (PDS) has engulfed Jharkhand severely, resulting in non-availability of rations, administrative apathy and cries of hunger. Since September 2017, 12 cases of alleged hunger related deaths have been reported in the state. On 24th July, the 13th case was reported where Rajendra Birhor, resident of Mandu district was suffering from jaundice and after starving for three days, he succumbed to death. A recent report by News18 revealed that the entire village of Chandurpara in tribal majority Pakur district does not have ration cards.  The villagers claimed that they were excluded from enumeration under Census 2011 and subsequently from receiving rations under the PDS. India is a nation of contradictions where starvation deaths and budgetary allocation for bullet trains are imagined in the same space and time. This is an unfortunate and disturbing reality across the country now. Starvation deaths are the last straw of hunger insecurity that plagues the whole country.  As per the Global Hunger Index, India’s rank has gone down from 55th in 2014 to 100th out of 119 countries in 2017.  Among the BRICS nations, India ranks last and neighbors Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh fare better in the ranking. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, 35.4 % of women and 25% of men in rural areas have Body Mass Index (BMI) below normal in Jharkhand. In such a situation, the PDS which guarantees food grains to entitled families under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) is an important intervention to ensure that people do not stay hungry. With the introduction of biometric authentication through AADHAR, several difficulties have risen. The process, in the name of saving costs, is in fact excluding people who need it the most. The government’s agenda appears to project crores of savings as an Aadhaar revolution rather than saving lives. The first case of starvation death in Jharkhand came to light in September 2017, when Santoshi an 11 year old girl, died crying for rice in Simdega district. While the family maintained that she died of starvation, the officials insisted that it was due to an illness. This official view echoed with Santoshi’s neighbor who was noted saying, “Aaj ka jug mein koi bhookh se mare hao (Does anybody die of hunger in this day and age)?” which indeed is an eye-opening statement. The Jharkhand government officials have repeatedly denied the existence of hunger deaths. After the 12th case of death caught national media attention, the deputy commissioner of Giridih reportedly said, “If it was starvation, it should have struck all the members”. A statement like this, is clearly ill-founded and smirks of apathy, ignoring the stark structural realities of caste, class and gender dynamics at play within spaces of limited public resources.  This official apathy intensifies the vulnerability of already marginalized people where their issues remain unidentified and ignored in the dominant public policy framework. The leader of opposition in Jharkhand, Mr. Hemant Soren shared a comprehensive list of the 12 alleged deaths and the causes associated with them on his twitter handle. A detailed analysis of these case studies reveals that all of them were dalits or tribals and 9 of the 12 who died of starvation, were women. Most of them were old and frail who without any income means could not sustain without the entitled food (rice) under the PDS given that even their pensions were not disbursed. A paper on Gender and Food Security by the International Food Policy Research Institute discusses how the the problem of food insecurity is ‘multidimensional and interconnected’. In the context of India, gender intersects with caste, ethnicity, religion and also age, to shape vulnerabilities confronted by people and the opportunities available to them. Food insecurity then becomes a result of injustice based on social identity. During the Monsoon Session in Jharkhand, Mr. Jagarnath Mahtoa of the key opposition party Jharkhand Mukti Morcha raised questions related to the death of Savitri Devi from Dumri Block.  The minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Food & Supply Department, Mr. Saryu Rai, however out rightly denied hunger as the cause for death. The food minister also shirked any possibility of providing government compensation to the family. Several civil society organizations across the country including the Right to Food Campaign organized a protest meet on 13th July 2018 at Jharkhand Bhawan, New Delhi. They condemned these ‘hunger deaths’ and demanded ‘universalization of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and social security pensions’ and ‘withdrawal of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) for food security in favour of the earlier prevalent system of PDS’. Noted economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera along with other activists have discussed the problems with biometric authentication whereby almost 10-15% of the most vulnerable population in Jharkhand has been excluded from the system. On similar lines, Ms. Ankita Aggarwal, volunteer with the Right to Food campaign told the writer that ‘despite media attention on the issue of starvation deaths, there are many cases that still remain unreported. She also felt that linking of Aadhar to PDS, despite being a major reason for what is happening in Jharkhand, is not the sole problem. She says that ‘the exclusions within the PDS have led to cancellation of almost 11 lakh ration cards and that is portrayed as savings of the government.’ Given the already dismal condition of PDS and a further setback with the introduction of compulsory biometric authentication, it remains to be seen how political will and empathetic decision making results in some ground level change, specifically with the forthcoming Assembly elections to be held in Jharkhand in  2019. (The writer is a postgraduate in Social Work with specialisation in Criminology and Justice from TISS, Mumbai and is working as an associate consultant with the Policy & Development Advisory Group, New Delhi.)]]>