India’s top court issues rare warrant in Gujarat silicosis deaths case

India’s top court has issued a rare warrant against the chief of the country’s pollution control board in the decade-old case of stone workers in Gujarat state who died of silicosis, Thomson Reuters Foundation reports.

The Supreme Court issued the warrant this week after the head of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) failed to notify the court of steps taken to prevent the deaths of workers from the respiratory disease, according to Radha Kant Tripathy, a lawyer with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Activists welcomed the move for greater accountability. “It is very significant and very unusual that the court issued the warrant,” said Colin Gonsalves, founder of the Human Rights Law Network which represented the petitioner, the charity Peoples’ Rights and Social Research Centre (PRASAR). The CPCB takes the matter very seriously, and will address the court’s concerns, A. Sudhakar, a senior official, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India is one of the largest producers of raw stone, accounting for more than a quarter of stones mined worldwide. Millions of workers in India’s quartz mines, quarries and stone-crushing factories have contracted silicosis from long-term exposure to silica dust, say activists. About a fifth of mine workers in India are children.

Many of the workers are poor tribals or bonded labourers who work for little or no money. They rarely receive medical care or compensation for loss of pay because of the disease. “These workers are abandoned by their employer, by the state. They have no rights, no protection,” Gonsalves said.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat government to pay 300,000 rupees ($4,445) to the families of each of the 238 migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh who died of the incurable lung disease, which they had contracted working in quarries and stone-crushing factories in Godhra, in Gujarat. That order came a decade after PRASAR had filed a petition, in 2006, asking for compensation and rehabilitation of the workers, as well as measures to protect other workers in eight states.

On the Supreme Court’s direction, the NHRC submitted a report in 2010, in which it said that Gujarat had failed to protect the workers from Madhya Pradesh. In ordering compensation to be paid, the Supreme Court said: “In the interest of the kith and kin of those people who died on account of the disease, and in the interest particularly of those orphan children of those deceased, we are of the view that the state of Gujarat should forthwith comply with the direction of the National Human Rights Commission.”

The state must submit proof it has paid compensation within eight weeks, the court said. It said the state of Madhya Pradesh will rehabilitate a further 304 workers from that state who contracted the disease. “We hope that the compensations will be paid immediately,” said Gonsalves. “More importantly, we hope that measures to identify and treat all workers suffering from silicosis will be taken,” he said.

The next hearing at the Supreme Court is on June 30.

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