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Much of the inexpensive jewelry in US malls features polished “agate” stones, which are leaving a trail of death in India.
KHAMBHAT, India — A few years ago, when occupational safety activists came to Hydersha Diwan's village here, 300 miles north of Mumbai, he drove them away with threats and bluster.
Today, he wishes that he'd listened.
Doctors say the 50-year-old is dying of silicosis, a wasting lung disease that he contracted inhaling deadly silica dust as a grinder of agates — colorful, semi-precious stones exported to the United States and other Western countries, and commonly used in silver and brass jewelry, rosary beads and home decorations.
“I was a supervisor for a grinding and polishing unit for 10 years or so,” says Diwan. “But when the workers stopped coming, I did the grinding myself for three or four years.”
Once a proud, muscular man, Diwan is hollow-eyed and emaciated, unable to sleep and hardly able to eat because of a relentless, hacking cough.
Throughout a GlobalPost interview with his family members, he slumps on the stoop of his home and coughs. The sound of it is horrible: a dry, futile rasp that yields no relief. It goes on and on, forcing a listener to imagine the sand that fills his lungs. Finally, he reels forward and spits a long, viscous trail of saliva onto the pavement, making it clear why he has positioned himself on the edge of the stoop.
Then the coughing overcomes him again.
Some may call it poetic justice, given Diwan’s hostile reaction to the occupational safety activists.
Diwan's workers “stopped coming” when the deaths of friends of co-workers made it impossible to deny that their jobs were killing them. Some failed to show up because they were dying themselves.
But silicosis is a fate too horrible to wish on anyone, and Diwan only bears a small portion of the blame for the disease that, mercifully, took his life as well, 10 days after he met with GlobalPost.
Agates at a mall near you
An opaque, semi-precious stone, an agate would be familiar to almost any American, even if the mineral’s name isn’t.
Agates vary in color from bright blue to glowing amber and deep black. They yield beautiful striped patterns when cut and polished. In addition to jewelry and rosary beads, they are used for decorative eggs, hearts and spheres and the like. New Age merchants market them as having the power to protect from stress, stomach pain, “energy drains” and even bad dreams. “This is the stone that everyone should have,” asserts one web retailer.
But the stone's silica content means that grinders and polishers are highly susceptible to silicosis, or “grinder's asthma” — an incurable, tuberculosis-like occupational disease. That's especially true in India, where agate workers typically earn less than a dollar a day, and exploitative employment conditions prevent them from adopting even basic safety measures.
According to investigations by the Vadodara-based People's Training and Research Center (PTRC) and the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), agate grinding and polishing here ranks among the world’s most dangerous work. As many as a third of Khambhat agate workers develop silicosis.
Since the grinding and polishing work takes place in sheds and empty lots located in residential areas, it also claims one out of ten of the workers’ children and family members, who breathe the same deadly air.
Because of India's disastrous preference for tiny, unregulated sweatshops over formal sector industries, there's no visible target like Foxconn to shoulder the blame — even though Khambhat exports hundreds of thousands of pounds of polished agate to be sold by US retailers each year.
And virtually nobody in India or abroad is doing anything to stop the killing of Khambhat's stone polishers.
“It's not exactly rocket science. The cause of silicosis among gem cutters is known, and the means to prevent it are readily accessible,” said Brian Leber, chief executive of Chicago-based Leber Jeweler Inc. Leber has done extensive advocacy work to eliminate dangerous and exploitative labor practices in the colored gemstones industry worldwide.
An ancient trade
Once known as Cambay, Khambhat has been an important center for gem and agate processing for hundreds of years. Although the city's traders now source the raw stones from as far away as Africa, and though silt has choked the local river, closing the ancient port, in some ways the agate polishing industry has hardly changed.