Sir jee, our whole khandan has been decimated and their children have been made beggars by this killer factory,” said Khalid Hunjra, the thirty five year old last male survivor of the Hunjra family, whose elder brothers Tahir and Qaisar died two and four years ago respectively, after fighting long and painful battles with a mysterious and incurable lung disease. “Five young men from our extended family, including my two elder brothers, and six others from our village Nut Kallar, have been killed by this factory. An old beggar woman used to beg us to stop working in the factory. She would narrate a story of death of her six young sons, who all died due to working in that factory. We thought she was crazy, so we never took her seriously.”

A visit to Khalid Hanjra’s small village Nutt Kallar, thirty kilometers east of Gujranwala city and interviews with the present and ex-workers of stone-crushing factory not only confirmed the death of 11 people from his village but also revealed deaths of two more people from an adjoining village. Khalid and his kin members worked in one of dozens of stone crushing factories in the Pindi Bypass and Lohianwlaa Bypass areas of Gujranwala. They worked at Ashraf Ansari’s factory located at Samanabad Choongi, Lohian-wala-Bypass.

Their work at the factory entailed feeding large stones to the grinding machine for breaking them down into a powdered form. The workers then mixed the white powder (silica) with another poisonous powder, i.e. boric acid, and then packed the mixture with hands and shovels into bags for distribution. In this process, due to absence of dust control mechanism, shoveling of powdered silica with boric acid raises a massive dust storm and the laborers are forced to inhale the deadly mixture of silica and boric acid. Apart from the harmful effects of the silica dust clouds on the health of the factory workers, the environment is also adversely affected – this is evident from the conditions of the working sites at such factories where even the surrounding trees are smothered and coated with a film of silica dust.

Interviews with the heirs of the deceased about the symptoms of the disease and opinion of medical experts and perusal of medical literature on occupational health has reveals that the disease that has taken the life of 13 young laborers from just two villages in Gujranwala is possibly silicosis, an incurable lung disease frequently misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. According to Dr. Ainul Momina, a public health expert at the Institute of Public Health, Lahore, “As a reaction to the inhalation of silica dust the lung develops a fibrous tissue around the trapped silica particles. Over a period of time, the victims start to lose weight along with their appetites and develop breathing difficulties. Other effects include possible fever, chest pain, dry cough and respiratory failure which may eventually lead to death.” Most of the families of Nutt Kallar have spent their entire life savings on these hospitals and their tests and medicines but none, at least in Nutt village, were able to save their beloved ones.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports on occupational diseases due to stone crushing and the Indian National Human Rights Commission’s report on Silicosis to the Parliament of India has well documented the prevalence of silicosis in the stone-crushing industry. Furthermore, according to the WHO and US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica is not only associated with silicosis but also with other fatal diseases including lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, and airways diseases. In addition, it may be related to development of autoimmune disorders, chronic renal disease, and other adverse health effects.

Furthermore, according to labor activist Niaz Ahmad, Director of the Labor Education Foundation, “death due to silicosis and other lungs diseases is a common tragedy experienced by stone-crushing factory workers and their families all over Pakistan, with many of the lives lost belonging to the same family or village.” It is pertinent to note here that lung diseases caused by stone crushing are entirely preventable through provision of proper equipment, e.g. masks to prevent inhalation of dust, and installation of machines to reduce the amount of dust produced in the premises.

While I was carrying out a survey of stone-crushing factories in Gujranwala region, I found out the gravity of the problem. I thought this killer factory was an anomaly and the only one existing, however, to my surprise there are 25-30 stone-crushing factories just in Gujranwala and hundreds more in Punjab.

Khalid and other ill-laborers told me they have complained several times to district authorities to take action against stone-crushing factory owners but no one has ever listened to them and they have stopped complaining to state authorities. “Because no one is concerned about lives of poor laborers in Pakistan,” Khalid stated matter-of-factly.

No one wants to end up in these factories as cannon fodder, but that is how poverty and misery drives people into the jaws of death; what is worse is how these factories are enjoying what appears to be a free rein. Why would they ever do something as basic and fundamental as ensuring that the wretched workers toiling for a mere chicken feed are equipped with safety gear, when there is virtually no check on them. But in a country where laws are made only to be broken, who would ever care for such ‘small’ violations of law and that too when those at the receiving end are the poor and the destitute?

The writer is a lawyer.