Stone Stories

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The stone quarry at Athwajan is in debate for both environmental and human costs. Riyaz Bhat reports

Stone-LabourIn a span of less than three years, Guru family lost two of its members to Athwajan’s death trap – stone quarry.

Brothers Mohammad Ramzan Guru, 45, and Abdul Razak Guru, 41, died in two different incidents, after the blast to extract rocks, brought down a large pile of debris, crushing them. The elder brother died in 1989, followed by young Razak three years later in 1992.

Since then, the quarry at Athwajan, a major source of raw material for construction material in Srinagar and peripheries, is at the centre of debate, both for environmental and human costs.

In last six years, there has been 13 deaths in Athwajan quarry so far, says police station Panthachowk. Majority of these deaths happened in 2013-14. “Most of those died belonged to Banihal and Ramban areas,” said a police official. “Apart from that, there were around 22 cases of serious injuries as well.”

Once a source of income for the locals Athwajan quarry has now become part of the lore for all the wrong reasons.

“My father was crushed by a rock and killed while working at the quarry,” says Mohammad Ayoub Pandit, who survives by working as labourer far from the quarry. Pandit’s father Abdul Rehman Pandit, 60, left a family of four behind – two daughters, a son and wife.

After Rehman’s death, his family was approached by labour department telling them that they are liable to compensation under Worksmen’s Compensation Act (1923). “An investigator from the bank approached us, took pictures and recorded statements. But nothings has happened so far,” says Pandit. “We have visited labour department at least a dozen times so far.”

Because of incidents like these a number of people who live in Athwajan, Summerbug, Panthachowk and other adjoining areas have abandoned working in the quarry.

Ghulam Mohammed Mir, 45, who lives half-a-mile from the quarry in Pandrethan, worked for around nine years there before quitting. “I saw one of my colleagues getting crushed by the rock. He survived, but I couldn’t dare to go back after witnessing death so closely,” says Mir who now extracts sand for the living. “Besides you are on your own if you get injured. Getting insurance money takes ages, if at all it comes.”

But the high rate of deaths, serious injuries and hazardous working conditions has forced locals to rethink their association with the quarry. The gap is now filled by the non-locals, mostly from far flung Banihal and Ramban areas.

“A labourer is paid between Rs 500 and 700 a day, while an experienced one gets better than that,” says Mohammad Maqbool Para, president stone quarry union Athwajan.

“However those who blast the quarry are highly trained professionals and get around Rs 12000 a month,” says Para.

These blasters, as they are called locally, are key to the operation as they have to work in the early hours. “If anything untoward happens, the owner of the quarry is liable to take care of a labourer’s family till they get the insurance money,” says Para. But that rarely happens.

However, despite safety concerns, geology and mining department issued fresh permits on condition that the extraction will be done only up to three feet.

“In last five years many deaths have taken place at these quarries. Workers work under extreme dangerous conditions. But nobody seems to care,” blames an ex-official of geology and mining department on condition of anonymity. “Even labour department seems powerless.”

“Overexploitation has turned Athwajan into menace,” feels Shakeel Romsho, who heads Kashmir University’s Earth Science department, “It is risky.”

Romsho feels, “the concerned authorities should identify extracting areas” and keep in view the “influence of quarrying on local population and the environment hazards.”

According to locals, quarrying in Athwajan is going on since more than last fifty years, thus being a source of livelihood for people living around it. “Around fifty thousand people are associated with quarrying,” says Mohammad Ashraf Mir, who represented the area in state assembly till January 2016. “Every day around 2500 trucks leave this quarry, which is huge. It earns state crores of rupees.”

Despite that, alleges Mir, there has been no police to safeguard the lives of labourers by any government so far. “The compensation is always provided by the owner rather than the government,” says Mir.

A labourer from Banihal, who has been working at the quarry since last two years, says they literally work under the shadow of death. “Government should make owners responsible for our safety.”

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