A story that changed tribal lives
The sexually exploited Churki Soren, 20, a daily wage labourer at the quarries, became a full-time sex worker and is suffering from STD.
School teacher Baburji Kisku's brother was crushed to death in a stone crusher. The family received no compensation.
Babulal Tutu of Habra Pahari village died when a boulder fell on him after a blasting operation.
NEW DELHI: In search of a story on child labour and exploitation of tribals as sex-workers, freelance journalist Kunal Deb reached Mallarpur, 50 km from Santiniketan, in 1993, soon after he got his MSc degree in economics from Calcutta University. It was also the time Deb had dissociated himself from extreme Left politics. Says he: ``The disenchantment created an ideological vacuum but my political orientation kept me from a government job. Then I saw the exploitation of tribal labourers, the health hazards they were facing and the ecological damage that was taking place in Mallarpur.''
Mallarpur is a Santhal-dominated area in West Bengal's Birbhum district, bordering Bihar. The area has over 350 stone quarries, half of which are unlicensed. ``They store enough dynamite to blow up the entire area and function by exploiting the tribals,'' says Deb. A few years and a monthly fellowship of Rs 2,500 from CRY for his work in Mallarpur saw Deb, along with a group of young like-minded people, form Uthanu in 1996. Uthanu is an NGO involved in checking environmental damage caused by quarries and in promoting sustainable development for the Santhals. ``Rs 2,500 wasn't enough, so I had to depend on family and friends,'' says Deb.
According to the State government's environment status report, 1999, in the 305 stone quarries and 325 stone crusher units in the region, an average of 35 people including children are employed for 12-hour shifts over 240 days a year, without any weekly offs. Child workers at stone crushers earn Rs 20 a day and adults Rs 28. In the quarries, adults get Rs 40 a day.
The units have no safe drinking water, toilet facilities or health checks. While no records are available, a high number of patients suffering from pneumonosis, tuberculosis, and bronchial asthma is reported from the communities. Blasting operations have proved to be hazardous to life and property. The SPM level was noted as very high and noise is much above the permitted level. During days of inspection, boots, helmets and dust masks are distributed only to be withdrawn later.
``The operating units have come up from transfer of agricultural land, executed through doubtful transactions from the tribal owners leading to alienation of the tribals in the region,'' notes the report.
In 1998, CRY offered project support to Uthnau but pulled out in 2000 without an official reason, ``ostensibly since the programme had assumed the status of a non-party political movement,'' says Deb adding, ``the Santhals had never before been so vocal. But now they've developed a sense of identity. Because of their agitation seven units have shut down in Mallarpur.''
``Experimenting with the Santhali language using Bengali script has had a tremendous impact,'' adds Deb. The NGO is trying to promote sustainable modes of income for the tribals. "A ceramic unit", says Deb, "is underway, and they are already marketing garments and jewellery made by the tribals."