Every night Rabeya wakes up coughing. Combined with persistent headaches, shortness of breath and back aches, her daily life is a constant struggle to steady herself these day.
For 18 years, Rabeya Khatun, 40 has been working as a mason, breaking stones at the stone breaking and crushing yard in Tetulia. She is part of what is known as a floating population—people who have no permanent address moving from one odd job to another.
She along with many of her colleagues suffer from the same kind of respiratory illness. The nearest hospital, the Tetulia Upazila Health Complex usually sends them home with a few nasal drops and painkillers because it does not have capacity to provide them with the advanced health care, they desperately need.
The area around Banglabandha – a major inland port in northern Bangladesh connecting a trade link with India, Nepal and Bhutan is a major industrial size stone cutting and crushing yard that employs more than 20,000 workers who are at major health risk from stone dust inhalation.
They are the human casualties of rapid industrialization in Bangladesh. Broken down stones for this industrial sized quarry travels to all over Bangladesh for construction. Years of exposure to dust from these stones has given Rabeya something akin to Silicosis – a lung fibrosis caused by the inhalation of dust containing silica.
Everyday hundreds of people are exposed to this toxic dust when working with a stone crushing machines just in Tetulia. The volumes of dust they inhale daily cause a number of respiratory diseases including silicosis, which has no cure.
Most of these patients at the Tetulia Upazila Health Complex are from low income families and are mainly women who cannot afford regular visits to the doctor.
Their job entails day-long ear-piercing sound made by the local diesel run stone crushing machines, carrying large stones putting the health of some the twelve thousand workers at risk.
The stone importers, machine owners, contractors, local administration, doctors—are all aware of the health risk they are putting the workers under but seems to be ambivalent it.
Health officials at Panchagarh in Tetulia have no data about the number of silicosis patients there.
There are more than 20,000 people working with more than 500 stone crushing machines, there.
These machines have been operating on the both side of Asian Highway, from Tetulia to Banglabandha land port including Bhajanpur, Mynakuri, Dabnagar, Jagdal, Sepiparpa, Tiranai, Khaykhhetpara, Sardarpara, Shalbahan, Buraburi, Balabari, Goaljahar, Moinakuri areas for years.
The stone crushing machines crush large stones into stone chips, which are then used as building or road construction materials.
Rabeya works with one of these machines and in her entire working life has never been told or offered to wear a mask.
At the start of her career she used to cut stones by hand, but after the diesel run machines were introduced, Rabeya’s job was changed to feeding hundreds of kilos of stones into the machines everyday day. These machines spew out huge plumes of dust making nearby areas into an unbreathable death pit.
Rabeya only goes to the Upazila Health Complex when the pain becomes unbearable.
“Normally the doctor prescribes a nasal drop to ease the breathing problem for a few days,” she said.
She knows that the doctors cannot really cure her if she keeps working in the same environment without any safety gear.
In the last three and half years, doctors at Tetulia Upazila Health Complex in Panchagarh treated more than 9,000 patients with respiratory diseases caused by stone dust.
The local administration in August, 2017 took an initiative to prevent the workers from dust inhalation but that effort went in vain.
Officials told Dhaka Tribune that there are no future programs planned concerning the prevention of workers respiratory disease.
No compensation, no insurance
Md Tafijul Haque, a stone importer at Banglabandha said that there are three types of workers at the stone crushing fields.
Importers bring in hundreds of tones boulder stones from India and Bhutan through the land port. “There are four to five hundred big trucks coming to the port every day, carrying 25 tons on each vehicle,” he said.
He said that the first set of workers just unload the stores. “Small accidents are normal in this job. Sometimes the heavy stones slip from their hands. Head injures are the most common.”
He said that now-a-days the Indian trucks have hydraulic systems to unload the stones.
These unloaders have a welfare association that takes care of their rights. “If a worker sustains an injury then they get a small amount from the association for treatment. We provide a sum.”
The second set of workers are the stone crushing machine operators called ‘Drivers’ who earn better than unloaders. Drivers are taken care of by the machine owners.
The most unfortunate are the third set, the daily workers, who crush stones and directly inhale the silica laced dust. They are not under and insurance coverage and do not have a any from of safety net if an accident happens of if they get ill.
These day to day contractual workers are the most vulnerable because they have no unions or welfare associations. They come from all over the country looking for work and sometimes work by crushing stones and sometimes by collecting stones from Mohananda river. They are mostly fishermen from the area, who have no safety net when it comes to the stone crushing work.