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Kot Diji’s limestone quarries: Under the grind

Kot Diji’s limestone quarries: Under the grind

Some 62 years separate Muhammad Aarab and his 13-year-old epileptic grandson Raja, and yet, both toil their lives away in the same drudgery: crushing stones at the Kot Diji quarries. Aarab, a 75-year-old, has been working at the stone quarries for the past 30 years. As fate would have it, his three elder sons and grandsons are now hustling on the same quarries.

Situated about 22 kilometres south of Khairpur, Kot Diji and its adjoining Naro Taluka are enormously rich in limestone, oil and natural gas. These resources should, in principle, provide great potential for the development of society around Kot Diji.

By extension, the quarry workers of Kot Diji can be considered the backbone of the construction industry in Sindh: their extracting, crashing and furnishing of the large deposits of stone means that private contractors, middlemen and suppliers are able to supply raw material to the construction industry in Sindh and beyond.

But in reality, both talukas are marked by unequal control and use of resources as well as social exclusion of the working classes. Much of the labour employed in Kot Diji is “informal” — in effect, this means that they are laden with severe marginality and vulnerability, with the State neglecting its responsibility of providing or enforcing human or children’s rights.

This dismal situation reflects the larger violations of fundamental labour rights of the informal sector in terms of insufficient wages, social protection benefits, occupational safety measures and proper working conditions, constitutionally guaranteed by the state’s institutions and regimes of international law.

“Stone crushing workers face physical injuries and are prone to asthma, chronic coughs and tuberculosis due to the dust and powder of limestone,” explains Muhammad Aarab, while talking about having to live in the mountains without drinking water or a health facility.

It has been almost three decades since extraction, crushing and use of limestone and gravel began in Kot Diji in the name of public and private construction works. The Sindh government’s Mineral and Mines Development Department has been engaged in the administration and dispensation of stone and gravel reservoirs ever since, through a policy of contracts and lease licensing of quarries to various contractors.

Millions of rupees are collected in monthly revenue in the form of royalty and excise octroi taxes. The entire system of exploiting and administering the limestone and gravel resources is based on the “governance of contractors and adhocism.”

A second category of quarry workers is employed in the crush plants owned by private quarry lease owners and licensed by the Sindh Mineral and Mines Development Department. At present, more than 30 crushing plants are operational in the Kot Diji limestone quarry area; on each plant, 25 to 30 workers are employed, who are required to stay at the plant premises for six days of the week.

These workers are the mainstay of extracting, crushing and furnishing the large deposits of stone material that is extracted, but most are always prone to respiratory diseases and physical injuries owing to the nature of their work. “We do not get the due reward of our hard work; our job is highly risky but we do not receive any healthcare benefits,” says one respondent.

A few huts away from Muhammad Aarab lives Taj Mohammad along with his family, which includes two minors. From early morning to sunset, he and his family work under the lease owner-contractor and extract raw material.

As Taj Mohammad explains, two workers of the family need to extract and prepare one truckload of crush material per week. One truck returns Rs3,000, of which Rs200 is paid to the lease owner. The crush material is then sold to suppliers and contractors for various kinds of construction works.

His issue is not with the everyday grind, but with the unavailability of potable water. “We purchase a water tanker for Rs1,300 from the nearby Bungalow Town every week; this water is utilised for the week to meet the needs of cooking, washing and feeding animals,” explains Taj Mohammad.

Proper and equitable use of resources is widely acknowledged as an important variable of socio-economic development and a way forward in the nation-building process. The unequal control, use and distribution of resources at the hands of a powerful ruling elite and state machinery not only generate socio-economic hierarchies, apathy and social exclusion in different forms and at different levels; it also becomes an obstacle to the processes of social justice and nation-building.

The large number of stone crush labourers, the men, children and womenfolk, working in the extractive mountain land resource area live and work in extremely tough and harsh conditions. It is ironic and unfortunate that these hardworking workers, the actual human resource in the infrastructural development of the province, are reduced to the status of informal labour workers.

They don’t know much about existing labour laws and human rights. When I asked a group of stone crush labourers about World Labour Day on May 1, they all responded: “No, we do not know.” Perhaps this year, the forces of change need to recognise how the stone crush workers of Kot Diji need legal care and social protection to ensure they can live healthy and prosperous lives.

The writer is an anthropologist and currently pursuing M.Phil studies in QAU, Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 26th, 2015

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