MICA MINERS MIRED IN OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD

Saidapuram, Jan 11: Mohammad Safi is a worried labourer, he feel he is in trouble. Crouched, alone and barefoot and carrying a shovel in his hand, he walks to the factory every morning to earn his living and sustain his family. This is the case of every worker working in the Seetharama MICA Company in Kalichedu village of Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh.

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Seetharama Mining Company, Saidapuram, Nellore. Photo: Arpan Rai

India produces about 62 per cent of the world’s mica. Commonly occurring as flakes, scales or shreds, it is then sorted by removing the stones from the mica flakes. Mica is used in electronic insulators; as a dusting agent, in well-drilling mud; and in plastics, roofing, rubber and welding rods. It is siliceous in nature and is mainly found in Andhra Pradesh at Gudur in Nellore district, Madhira in Khammam district and Ankannagudem by the west of river Godavari.

Over the past few decades the demand for mica has drastically declined due to the newer technology that has substituted mica in its numerous electronic uses. In this context there is no major growth expected for the mica market. This has also lead to decline in the mica mining itself which is evident in the closing down of most of the mines in Gudur.

Mica factory
Mica Sheets need to be cleaned of waste and stones manually.

There were around 60 to 70 mines in the yesteryears, and as of now only 11 are working. The labourers in the mines have dwindled down to only three to four thousand in contrast to the earlier number of around sixty thousand workers.

At the Seetharama MICA Company, around 300 labourers work as pump drivers, in jockeying, drilling, as mica cutters and sorters among other jobs. Out of the 300, among 100 are women labourers, many of them widowed as their husbands have succumbed to silicosis-tuberculosis, a common disease found among mica labourers.

Most of the women work as loaders, sorters and cutters. Almost all of them are contact labourers. Even for permanent labourers who get provident fund and health benefits, the labourer’s claims that the company is defaulting on its share hence they are no better in terms of retirement benefits.

Working at a daily wage of Rs. 160, Yashodama, tasked with throwing of small pebbles out of the sorted mica says, “The system is so callous that to get an possible pension of around 500 Rupees, we have to slog in the mines continuously for 30 years, and most of them quit halfway through as their bodies and the illness do not allow them to continue in their mine work.”

Women working in a mica factory near tippaguntalapan
Labourers stacking up the sorted mica’s into gunny bags.

The fact that even in the local hospital at Kalichedu, the labourers are not given free treatment as most of them are bereft of the luxury of an identity card as they are all daily wage labourers, is baffling. Hence they are forced to pay through their noses for the medicines. There are only 18 permanent labourers with identification cards who can avail free treatment at the Kalichedu Mica Mines Labour Welfare Hospital.

The most apparent neglect of this system are the women mine labourers who are mostly on contract basis and do not get the identification cards, hence the spirit behind the Mica Mines Labour Welfare Fund Act of 1946 is not served at all.

“A weeks work here earns us Rs. 960 as we are unskilled labourers. The men earn Rs. 200 a day as they are usually skilled. We are not even given basic necessities like masks and helmets while sorting out mica”, rues Prabhavati, who stays with her husband in the nearby village of Sydapuram.

Thirumallai, Chief Superintendent of the Seetharama MICA Mines however argues saying that labourers are given adequate health precautions including helmets and masks during their working hours.

On being asked about the provident funds and identity cards for contractual labourers, he said, “The labour association has bought up this issue with the owners of the mines, and necessary actions will be taken in due course.”

Mica dust
The amount of dust in Mica factories is hazardous to the human health. 

As per the data from the Primary Health Centre in Gudur, a disproportionately high number of mica miners are affected with silicosis-tuberculosis after being exposed to silica dust.

It is evident that even with all the welfare schemes, help is not reaching the needy, in particular the contract labourers who are exposed to the dusty atmosphere in the mines. Hence it is imperative that the labourers who are working at present in the mica mines should also be included for getting benefits of the basic welfare schemes which will help them at the time of their needs.

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