On Monday morning, two miners were reported killed while working inside an illegal so-called “rat-hole" coal mine in East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, even as at least 15 workers trapped inside another flooded mine since 13 December are feared to be dead by now due to delayed rescue operations.
The utter indifference of the state government to find a permanent solution to this recurrent tragedy is significant for two reasons. First, it appears that the lives of poor mine workers who are often migrants from Assam or illegal entrants from neighbouring Bangladesh matter little. Second, the state is seemingly complicit in the tragedy by not only allowing a banned enterprise but also collecting taxes from the transport of illegally harvested coal, bringing into scrutiny the elites’ disregard for the rule of law.
Much like the Meghalaya tragedy, other disasters—some driven by policy and others where policymakers look away—show how little the lives of the poor matter in India. For instance, over the past year, at least 17 people are likely to have succumbed to hunger in Jharkhand, which is among the poorest states in India, as they failed to link their biometric identification or Aadhaar number with their ration cards, which guarantee highly subsidised food under the National Food Security Act.
Following the botched demonetization exercise, more than a 100 people are estimated to have died either while standing in queues for long hours or for failing to provide new banknotes while getting treated in hospitals. In addition to public policy disasters, the lack of respect for the rule and law has often led to deaths of workers. An uncounted number of labourers who are paid a pittance continue to die because of silicosis after inhaling stone dust while working in quarries in states such as Rajasthan and Gujarat. These deaths can be prevented by using face masks and goggles and by using wet drilling, but mine owners continue to ignore occupational health regulations. Rich consumers who extensively use stones as construction material in their homes remain unaware of the human costs involved.
The same holds true of the recurrent deaths of sanitation workers.
In the national capital, more than 20 labourers have died in the past year alone from inhaling poisonous gases while cleaning sewers and sewage treatment tanks, despite the federal government’s thrust on sanitation and cleanliness. The scant attention paid to concerns raised by the marginalized was laid bare when 13 people died in police firing in May 2018 when they gathered to protest against environmental pollution caused by a copper smelting factory in Tamil Nadu. At least five farmers were shot during a protest demanding fair crop prices in Madhya Pradesh in June 2017.
These incidents, and the speed with which they disappear from public memory until new ones emerge, show that remedial actions are often patchy and geared toward managing the public perception. It is no surprise then policymakers think a mere ₹ 4 lakh compensation is enough for a silicosis victim. Most families struggle for years to receive even that pittance.