Mining Reality

Women in Goa’s iron ore mining belt suffer from a complex range of health issues and frequent pregnancies because of a stew of environmental and social factors, says a recent study.

New Media Fellows 2013

By Anindita Sengupta

May 05, 2013

Also published by the Bangalore Mirror

Rarely do we think about Goa except in terms of sun-sand-sea clichés but reality runs deeper. Mining, one of the state’s major industries, was banned by the Supreme Court in October 2010 after a non-profit organisation filed a petition about pollution levels. But mining companies are rejoicing because they may soon receive clearances to resume operations. This will have far-reaching effects on groundwater, air and soil in large parts of the state as well as on the health of the people here. The paper, “Women’s well-being and reproductive health in Indian mining community: Need for empowerment,” which studied 40 women in a community situated in the mining belt of the state, provides glimpses into the complexities of life, livelihood and well-being in these parts.

Women are usually not employed in the iron ore mining belt in Goa due to the nature and intensity of work, says the study. Nor do they have alternative employment opportunities. As mining dump materials overflow on river banks and pile up on fertile lands rendering them unusable, ponds and streams become foul. Mining makes the ground unfit for agriculture, an occupation that women can engage in. The stench of their helplessness is alive in these parts. One woman in the study says: “I have poor financial condition as my husband is separated from me. I am tired, weak and unhappy about my present life due to isolation. I have to work hard to support my children, as we are poor and can't afford anything in life. I face poverty and health problems due to mining. Sometimes I depend on work in the mines otherwise we have finance problem.” This is the story of many women here.

While some of the women say that their husbands have left them, others have little say in household decisions. Their voices are strangled by the relentless helix of poverty and powerlessness. Long tedious hours, heavy work and /or the tension of unemployment take their toll on the men, over two thirds (67.5%) of whom drink alcohol heavily. Most of the women in the study speak of wife beating or domestic violence (90%) in various forms. This stew of frustration and violence means that many women here have to constantly battle depression, helplessness and feelings of despair. “I am worried about my children and my future. I keep on thinking and I crying about the past and the unknown future. I wake up feeling uneasy, groggy and light headed. I have no one to tell my problems or share my unhappiness...My husband does not take me to the doctor,” said a 41-year-year old woman.

Even a cursory look at the health complaints leads to horror. Women complain of skin diseases, respiratory diseases like tuberculosis and gastro-intestinal illness. They attribute them to changes in the quality of air and water, degradation of soil, or mining accidents. They get colds often. They have headaches, fever, dry cough, eye allergy, dust allergy and throat irritation.

The other point of concern is women’s reproductive health. Decisions like when to have a baby, how many babies to have and contraception, require communication between partners. Only about one in five (22.5%) of the women reported good inter-spousal communication. This means that discussing simple things are impossible. Condoms, for example. Or the harm of frequent pregnancy. In this community, spouses make most of the reproductive health choices like spacing/birth intervals (82.5%) and son preference (95%). Husbands take decisions about where and when women should seek reproductive choices and access to health care. The study underlines how a preference for boys dominates many communities in India, and how this is enforced by men, and their mothers. Many women speak of abuse by the husband and the mother-in-law when they don’t bear sons.

Here as in many other places, reproductive health is part of a complex web of environmental factors. The depletion of agriculture by mining, lack of employment choices, domestic violence and powerlessness make women ill, unhealthy, depressed and unable to exercise choices. As the researchers point out, there is an urgent need to empower women in these rural mining communities through home visits, counselling by nurses, empowerment programmes and so on. But that won’t be enough. Helping them earn their own money through viable alternative occupations is crucial. Is there the political will to do so?

Anindita Sengupta is a 2013 IRP New Media Fellow reporting from India.