Godhra, in the state of Gujarat, is an ugly, treeless, light-brown town. Driving into the city from the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, the green of the fields – planted with pearl millet and sorghum, anjan trees and mangoes – disappears abruptly, as though vegetation has no permit to enter. Once we cross the border from MP, official-looking boards appear at the roadside, bearing the slogan Nirmal Gujarat – Spotless Gujarat – part of a campaign to encourage cleanliness in the state’s towns and villages.
It was here that in 2002 the right-wing Hindu government set in motion a pogrom against Gujarat’s Muslim population. Fifty-nine people were burned alive in a railway carriage on tracks leading south from Godhra, a Muslim mob blamed for the murders, and ‘revenge’ unleashed. In the violence that followed, nearly 2,000 Muslims were killed, and hundreds more raped or burned out of their homes. The ‘Nirmal Gujarat’ advertised on the boards has since been trying to wipe away the bloodstains. One of the great propaganda projects undertaken by the State government has been to promote Gujarat’s economic success since 2002, an orgiastic rush for profits encouraged by the authorities and internalised by many middle-class Gujaratis.
Prajapati is a squat, square little man in his late-fifties, the manager of a stone-crushing factory in an industrial zone on the edge of town. In Godhra, and nearby in Balasinore, these factories process silica quartz, used for making glass and as a scouring agent for muddy pipes on oil rigs and in tunnelling equipment. Waiting at the factory gates, I can see workers walking about, some of them with little yellow snouts strapped to their faces, like children’s party-masks of Hanuman, the monkey god. And I can hear a constant sound, like a mini-landslide of grinding rock. But having announced myself to the clerk at the front desk, the machinery comes to a halt on the other side of the wall, replaced after a few minutes by the rattle of an engine coming round the corner. Prajapati appears on a motorbike that’s about 800ccs too light for him. He bumps up to me on the hard mud road and slowly parks his machine. I can’t see his eyes behind his gold-rimmed shades.
His handshake is limp, just a light clasp of sweaty fingertips, no palm involved at all. Most Gujaratis are averse to unnecessary touching, especially with strangers. I am Gujarati myself, and I switch to the language as I greet him. This throws Prajapati slightly – I can tell from his introduction that he has been prepping his Hindi for the guy from Delhi.
‘Oh, are we Gujarati?’ He asks, relaxing slightly.
‘Yes, yes, parents from Ahmedabad.’
‘Right, okay, right. I was on my way to have my lunch when my man called, but I turned right around and came back. Come, let’s sit in my office.’ He turns to the clerk. ‘Ei, switch on the AC!’
As a tube-light flickers on, Prajapati settles himself into a swivel chair under a small shelf holding statues of various gods and goddesses each with their own dedicated incense stand. Prominent in the middle is a lurid calendar depicting a baby Krishna draped with an old garland of yellow flowers. Behind and to the side is a big plate-glass window through which you can see into the main shed. It’s an office exactly like a million factory offices all over India, spartan except for the rattling air-conditioner, a tiny green-lit bunker from which a man can brutalise those working in the heat outside.
The fine dust generated in these factories gets into the lungs, disabling them and turning the blood into water. The disease is called Silicosis, and there is no cure; all one can do is stave off the inevitable. Over the last two decades, the victims in this part of India have mainly come from the Bhil and Bhilala tribes in the neighbouring districts of Alirajpur and Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh, where uncertain harvests and failed state support have pulled the ground from under them. Despite protests by trade unions and inspections by human rights agencies, the factories have continued to operate with impunity under the state Government, another of whose slogans is Garvi Gujarat, Proud Gujarat.
‘I really don’t know what the fuss is about,’ he says, cutting to the chase, Gujarati to Gujarati. ‘All the factories here have installed new extractors since 2006 as required by the agencies. It’s not that we weren’t careful before, but now we are extra careful. It’s never been as bad as people claim, but now there’s no problem at all.’ Costing roughly 350,000 rupees, and another 50,000 to install, extractors are far cheaper than compensation. Why would any sensible profit-seeker hesitate?
When I ask about the deaths among the tribals from Madhya Pradest, Prajapati’s guard drops. Now it’s him and me, two Hindus of upper caste, and he expects me to understand.
‘Look…have you ever been to these people’s villages? Have you seen, you must have seen…’ – he leans forward – ‘how much these people drink? All that local hooch. They lie around all day, drinking, and it’s that liquor that destroys their lungs more than anything else.’
Prajapati opens a button of his synthetic shirt. The air-conditioning isn’t proving effective yet. His tone changes, a hard edge under the affable chat. ‘Look, we do say clearly that it’s dangerous work. We have never denied that we work with somewhat hazardous materials but we take all precautions. I mean, look at me, what do you see?’
Leaning back in his swivel chair, his gold frames glinting, folds of muscle gone to paunch, his fingers loaded with astrological rings, Prajapati waits for a beat and answers his own question:
‘I mean, if all this is so dangerous why has nothing happened to me? I’ve been here since 1980! I weigh, what, seventy-nine, eighty kilos? I am fit, for my age, that is. I’m fifty-nine, I am active, I work here too, I run this place. I’m here six days out of seven, sometimes every day of the week!’
‘It must be strenuous, running this factory, especially in the heat?’
‘It is, it is, Joshi bhai, it’s not a picnic. But that is the exact point, we all do what we have to, to fill our stomachs!’
‘At our age we need to have regular medical check-ups, don’t we?’
At the mention of medicine, Prajapati suddenly becomes cheerful.
‘Regular! Reg-gu-lar! Every six months, I go to Baroda!’ Prajapati names a doctor in the nearest big city. ‘He’s the leading chest specialist, you know? Some would say the very best in whole of Gujarat! I get a thorough check-up every six months, no fooling around!’ Prajapati scratches the hair on his chest lightly, as if remembering the touch of the physician. ‘You see, these people, these workers, they come and go, but I’m the one who has to stay here.’
After a while, the clerk comes in and makes a small grunt. Prajapati stands up and invites me to take a walk around the main shed.
‘The only hazardous area is the collection chamber in the silo, where the crusher sends down the processed stone.’ Prajapati jumps on to tightly packed sacks, called boris, and strides forward as if walking on a rocky beach.`What we do is make sure nobody spends too much time inside the area. It’s not fully automated yet. We’ll get there one of these days. But workers never get exposed, they only go in when the dust has settled.’
We make our way to the back of the shed, past a machine two floors high that seems to be pouring rock into an equally huge receptacle just out of sight on the other side of a high wall. We pass into a shaded back section of the shed where there is a metal-walled chamber, with a door that is shut. Prajapati gestures to the clerk, who opens the door.
At first it seems there is another wall just behind the door, an opaque, light brown screen, moving and shimmering in place. As I get to the door, I can sort of see there is a source of light somewhere in the shed, and then, when I step in, I understand. From a high opening, sunlight fights its way down through the thick murk of dust, losing the battle by the time it touches what must be ground. The faint illumination silhouettes a massive cylinder, at the bottom of which I can make out an opening; there is something white and cloth-like below the opening, an empty bori, I guess, because next to it are small walls of packed sacks. Suddenly, I am inhaling the mist of acrid granules enveloping my face. I can’t see beyond fifteen feet.
‘Go in, go in, nothing will happen to us.’ Says Prajapati from outside the door.
The clerk adds his own encouragement. ‘Yes, go right in if you want! Nothing happens!’
I am scared to breathe, but after a few moments there is no choice. As my eyes adjust, I see three figures on the far side of the funnel, their outlines fuzzy, standing directly in the residue of sunlight. One of them watches the other two moving a sack as if in slow motion. The bottom half of these men’s faces are covered with the Hanuman masks. The funnel is clearly dormant, but the dust is alive, rising up even as it closes in around us. I start to back away. Even though I’m not five feet inside the chamber, for a moment I’m terrified I’ve lost the door.