Miner Tuberculosis Creates Village of Widows in Rural India

Shuriah Niazi – WNN Features

Recent increases in deaths from tuberculosis among Saharia tribal miners creates an alarming rise in widows

India Tribal Woman's hand shows tatoos
The hand of a Rabari tribal woman from Nadapa Village, of Gujarat State, neighboring wast of Madhya Pradesh. Behind are drawings associated with the goddess known as Khodiyar Mat. Image: Meena Kadr

Majhera Village, India: Because of the deaths of so many miners, India’s village of Majhera, in the Shivpuri District inside the State of Madhya Pradesh, is now called the, “village of widows.”

One Saharia tribal widow, in the village of Majhera, is 22 year old Kamla who recently lost her husband and is still in mourning.

Saharia tribal women have only a 7% literacy rate. Because of this, finding employment that will support their family after the death of their husband is almost impossible.

Madhya Pradesh, one of the largest states in India with the highest percentage (14.5%) of ‘Scheduled Tribes,’ also known at the Adivasi, is the home of the one of India’s most ancient people known as the ‘Saharia.’ Living under extreme poverty, that has included a history of death by hunger, the Saharia are a growing part of India’s vastly underpaid now working in the illegal mining industry.

Another miner, Suresh, the husband of 40 year old Saharia woman, Bhagwati, has also passed away. He death has left Bhagwati with mounting pressure to care for herself and her family. The cause of death is tuberculosis, that has been exacerbated by the culture of illegal mining in India.

Without her husband Bhagwati’s resources are gone. Many miners wives work alongside their husbands with their children scavenging the tailings and wastes dumps that often surround the illegal mines.

With the rising weight of poverty in villages inside Madhya Pradesh malnutrition is also on the rise. Malnutrition numbers in the region have gone up from 53.55% to 60%. The issue of hunger is a condition that comes with many illegal mines, as workers face extreme low wages, uncertain work, mining accidents and the fatal cost of related illnesses.

“Because miners often live in crowded conditions, work long hours without enough food, and have little access to health care or medicines, they have a high risk of getting TB,” said a 2009 report by Hesperian Foundation, a global grassroots educational publisher for public health.

Contamination of water in mining areas is also an issue. “…communities and workers are forced to consume contaminated water or live without a water facility as ground water is badly depleted due to mining,” says the advocacy group MM&P – Mines, Minerals & People, a growing alliance of individuals, institutions and communities who are concerned and affected by mining in India.

Thirty-seven year old Anandi Bai, another Saharia widow whose husband worked as an illegal miner, is another part of the casualty of the rising TB epidemic. The loss of her husband, Ramlal, has left her and her family with little health care access or food security.

Without husbands, many widows, are thrown immediately into being single ‘heads of household,’ adrift in a world where poverty becomes much more severe as they try to face society without their husbands. Because of this, other dangers to women can occur. False job offers can turn into sex-trafficking or labour bondage. These dangers are true for widows as well as their daughters.

India coal miners Jharkhand State
Coal miners sit outside the entrance to a mine in Jharkhand State, which borders Madhya Pradesh to the east. Image: Biswarup Ganguly

“To be able to survive economically, the widows go to the quarries themselves and run the risk to get the disease that caused the death of their husband,” says a June 2010 report by the India Committee of the Netherlands on the hazards of illegal mining.

In illegal mines producing the mineral silica, a condition called Silicosis has become common among workers. Silicosis comes from extended exposure to rock powder dust that contains the mineral. The symptoms and prognosis with the disease closely mimic tuberculosis.

The critical rise in TB deaths in Majhera’s illegal mining community is now exposing the impact fall-out of sub-standard conditions and corrupt mining policies to regions outside Madhya Pradesh. In spite of an outcry by labour advocates, illegal mining of iron ore, coal, silica, copper and other minerals has been on the rise throughout India.

Because of this, illegal use of children in child labour and the misuse of women as stone labourers has been brought to the attention of advocacy groups.

HIV/AIDS, is also among the health challenges miner families face today. As mining industries attract women sex-workers who congregate in regions close to the mines, miners who have contracted the disease bring HIV/AIDS home to their wives. The incidence of HIV/AIDS in the region may also be contributing to TB deaths. Further studies need to be made.

Kamla, Bhagwati and Anandi Bai are not the only women of the Majhera village whose miner husbands have died from tuberculosis. In Majhera village alone, a shocking total of 92 widows are now suffering the consequences of their husbands deaths to TB.

Although exact numbers of TB deaths in the region have not been formally assessed among the tribals, numbers are desperately needed to enable pro-active health programs and better legislation to be put into place in India.

“My state, Madhya Pradesh, has the highest level of malnutrition in the country, especially among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but the government has just not woken up to the issue,” said Yogesh Kumar, executive director of the Samarthan Centre for Development Support in Bhopal.

TB – tuberculosis, is a disease that has been known to be communicable in some forms and can be extremely debilitating. In cases where nutrition is low, and treatment is limited, it is often fatal. Fatalities are common especially if the disease is a virulent form of TB called MDR-TB, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis.

“All of them (the miners who are suffering) are Saharia tribal,” says KS Mishra, who is district chairman of a combined group of 17 regional organizations known as Jan Adhikar Manch. “Life is very difficult for them,” adds Mishra. “They work in illegal mines for their livelihood and easily fall and succumb to a disease like TB, as they are malnourished in the absence of an adequate diet.”

Free medicines, provided by government hospitals for the treatment of tuberculosis, are part of India’s campaign to fight the disease. But the medicines are not easy to get for those who are living under poverty in the region. Because of this, more virulent forms of TB may be incubating in the mining areas and tribal rural villages in Madhya Pradesh.

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