West Bengal

occupational hazards


Workers covered by the ESI Scheme totals to somewhere above 10 lakhs of the 2.15 crore work force in West Bengal. A huge many of them are engaged in hazardous industrial processes and are hencesusceptible to occupational diseases. There are in all 34 such scheduled occupational diseases (ODs) enumerated till date in different, relevant laws of the land.


One of the major stumbling blocks in this issue is an overall lack of awareness in various quarters. A section of the general workers despite being ESI beneficiaries are unaware of their basic right ó entitlement to be compensated if affected by occupational disease. The grass root trade union leaders are not too well off and have been in many instances instrumental in coaxing and coercing the workers to leave their jobs when found affected. The Central Trade Unions, even when aware, have so many pressing issues on hand that they have for decades ignored and have remained indifferent towards this, the most neglected social security issue at this moment. On some point or the other general physicians, government officials, social activists and the general public have lagged behind paving the way for this impasse to continue.


Procedure for compensation


For an ESI beneficiary to be compensated, he or she must be referred to the Occupational Disease Centre at ESIC Hospital, Joka by the Superintendents of one of the 12 ESI Hospitals of the State. These cases are duly processed and the victims are made to appear before a Special Medical Board (SMB) constituted by the ESI Corporation. This year the SMB functioned at ESIC Hospital Joka on 9-10 May 2000.


Compensation in 2000


Of the 40 Occupational Disease cases put up before the Special Medical Board this year 19 victims from seven companies have been finally awarded compensation while seven from two companies have been awarded compensation provisionally. These 26 occupational disease victims fall into four types of diseases. In the remaining 14 cases no evidence of occupational disease was detected by the SMB. Of the 40 above mentioned cases sent up this year eight are such who had appeared in the 1999 SMB too. This means 32 fresh cases had been sent to the SMB this year like in 1999 taking the total to 64 in these two years. Of these 64 workers 28 have been finally awarded their compensation while seven provisionally. These 64 workers belong to 12 companies and has been affected by five broad categories of occupational diseases.


Compensation in 1999


Last year as mentioned above 32 cases were put up before the SMB held at the same venue on 27-28 July 1999. Of these, 17 cases of occupational diseases were approved by the Special Medical Board (SMB) of which compensation was granted to nine workers from five companies. While the remaining eight workers from five companies were only provisionally, confirmed to be suffering from occupational disease. These 17 workers were suffering from four types of diseases.


Delayed Sittings


By August '99 within a month of the July '99 SMB meeting at least 28 more fresh victims of occupational diseases were awaiting the next Special Medical Board of ESIC having already been referred to the Occupational Disease Centre, Joka. Despite all efforts however the next Special Medical Board sat after a gap of 91/2 months, on 9 and 10 May this year.


Some Highlights


1. Of the 26 awarded compensation this year three have been estimated to have 50-60% disability while 22 others between 10-30%. The remaining worker has been awarded compensation posthumously.


2. Like Ghure Adhikary of Diamond Ceramics in 1999, Late Kailash Jana of Waldies Ltd., Konnagar has been confirmed to have died of occupational disease by the SMB this year.


3. The five occupational diseases compensated so far are : SILICOSIS, BYSSINOSIS, ASBESTOSIS, LEAD POISONING, SILICO TUBERCULOSIS.


4. The 11 industrial units from which workers have been compensated for occupational disease and the concerned ESI local office are : (a) Diamond Ceramics (Dum Dum); (b) Kesoram Industries (Garden Reach); (c) Harbanslal Malhotra (Belgharia); (d) Jayshree Insulators (Rishra); (e) Hooghly Mills (Kidderpore); (f) Associated Porcelain (Barasat); (g) Waldies Ltd. (Konnagar); (h) Sandeep Castings (Bally); (i) Kalyani Spinning (Barasat); (j) Shine Up Fibre (East Chengail); (k) J.D. Jones. (Shalimar).


5. Gangasaran Lodh of J D Jones had been primarily detected at the Belur (ESI) TB Hospital to be suffering from Asbestosis back in 1994. With six months to spare for his retirement he has finally been given 60% disability this year which would come to about Rs 53 per day till his death.


ESI Infrastructure for Occupational Disease


The detection centre for lung related occupational diseases which started functioning from early '97 at Belur (ESI) TB Hospital is functioning very well, equipped suitably with man and machine. No wonder that till date it has sent above 50

occupational lung disease patients suffering from six diseases to SMB at Joka of whom 28 have been finally awarded compensation. All these victims have been indentified by the ODC at Belur from among its indoor and outdoor patients signifying that this centre is one such rare government institutions in the country where a team of motivated medical personnel are displaying commendable alertness and alacrity.


The ESI Maniktala Hospital has sent up 12 cases to the SMB but it still lacks basic infrastructure and can hardly be categorised as a OD Centre. But for some individual doctors these cases could have been overlooked given the state of affairs.


There are 10 more ESI hospitals in the state and none of them have any occupational disease detection centre and perhaps none of them have till date referred any case to the ODC at ESIC Hospital Joka. The latter in its turn is grossly under utilised and there is room for apprehension that this massive infrastructure demarcated for occupational disease could be used for some other purpose before very long.


The ESI (MB) Scheme under the Government of West Bengal has over a dozen occupational disease experts whose skill or training is not being utilised. The Medical Inspectors under the same scheme have nothing to do with the workers or their occupational disases. The ESIC too does not have any Medical Inspectors.


The ball is rolling somewhat freely at the ESIC Regional Directorate but there still seems to be at least some scope for a greater momentum early signs of which is perhaps evident.


Unorganised Sector


It is common knowledge that occupational hazard is most rampant in the unorganised sector. Work place safety invariably gets ignored and workers suffer in thousands. There is no semblance of state run infrastructure for detection and hence the very question of compensation is ludicrous.


In the case of victimised workers at the now infamous stone crushing unit at Chinchugheria the Supreme Court in a milestone judgement had awarded one lakh rupees as compensation to the next of kin of the deceased workers, yet it goes without saying that this in spite of being an exemplary judgement can hardly become a flood gate opener without an active role of the state. This, however, is conspicuous by its absence.


It is becoming evident that only a state run health insurance system related directly to cases of occupational diseases of workers in the unorganised sector can be effective. The Workmenís Compensation Act can never be a real solution to the problem. In absence of a wholesome detection mechanism, compensatory regulations or legal statutes will remain a lame duck. Even the basic tests for detection are privately done and are exceedingly expensive. Under such circumstances it becomes obligatory that the state does something more active.


Infrastructure for non-ESI Workers


Not a single state hospital in West Bengal has any infrastructure for occupational disease detection.

There are just four Factory (Medical) inspectors under the Chief Inspector of Factories and they are expected to inspect tens of thousands of industrial units in the state.


There is hardly any initiative on the part of State Government to utilise the expertise of the specialised infractructure available at three premier scientific institutions located at Calcutta viz. Regional Occupational Health Centre, All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health and Regional Labour Institute.


As a result thousands if not lakhs of occupational disease victims in the unorganised and/or non-ESI Sector does not even have one state run Occupational Disease Centre to be referred to.


Repeated Suggestions to the West Bengal Government for the formation of a Directorate of Occupational Disease and Safety has been falling on deaf years since early 1995.

Citizenís Initiative and Occupational Disease


Well within its limitations Nagarik Mancha has tried to remain associated with this neglected social security issue of workers, since 1993. Radharaman Paikar was the first case in West Bengal to have received compensation from ESI in 1994 having been affected by Byssionosis. Nagarik Mancha had done its bit with valuable help from some medicos and organisations. Later in early 1995, Nagarik Mancha had submitted for the first time a report containing information about occurrences of occupational diseases in response to the Supreme Court directions in a PIL which was included in the Ganges Matter. The entire exercise was only to prove that occupational disease did exist and it was a silent killer, unrecognised and belittled. At least the relevant infrastructure for detection of occupational disease under the ESI in the state has been growing in strength, even if slowly, since then. The victims from four units affected by four occupational diseases specifically named by Mancha in its 1995 report to the Supreme Court have been compensated till date proving after all that occupational disease does really exist.



[ This is a Nagarik Mancha Report ]