Fellow Since 1998
Occupational Health and Safety Association ( OHSA)
This profile was prepared when Raghunath Manwar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.
Raghunath K. Manvar, a mechanical technician in a Gujarat power station, is organizing a comprehensive approach to occupational health hazards in power plants across India. He is building multiple coalitions among factory workers, health officials, and lawyers to raise awareness of preventive measures and to lobby for reform of worker health and safety laws.
The New Idea
The blatantly dangerous working conditions that prevail in India's power plants have motivated Ragunath Manvar to organize systematic reforms. He envisions a society where workers are both aware of occupational health risks and able to influence their working conditions, and in which power companies are held strictly responsible for the dangers to which their employees are exposed.To achieve such ends, Manvar begins with a series of workshops that raise workers's awareness of health and safety standards, and that introduce them to the practice of wearing protective gear. He follows up by creating close connections with several workers's organizations that further strengthen workers's commitments to safety. But such grass-roots organizing is far from enough, as he has come to know through years of experience with the complexity of the problem. He has thus also focused on the medical establishment on its routine neglect and misdiagnosis of occupational illnesses, its ignorance of workplace politics. In collaboration with the Occupational Health and Safety Organization, he instigates re-training sessions that inform doctors about working conditions. Finally, and most broadly, Manvar is directing a comprehensive effort to reform worker safety laws. Manvar has enjoyed great local success, and now focuses his energies on his project's expansion to other communities and states throughout India.
There are more than 300,000 workers in India engaged in the generation and distribution of electricity. In the state of Gujarat alone, the Electricity Board employs 50,000 people. Despite being branded as a "hazardous industry" by the Factory Act of India, power plants have yet to define health and safety regulations for their workers. Nor has there been any organized citizen action to get the industry to account for the health and environmental costs of its profit-making operations.A recent regional study conducted by Manvar and his team on occupational hazards in the state of Gujarat reveals, on a conservative estimate, that there are thirty deaths per year in power plants, and that at least forty percent of all workers are affected by occupational diseases. In 1997, the Ukai thermal power plant alone registered seventy accidents (resulting in the loss of 635 man-days). And these were the officially reported accidents; those involving contracted or casual workers a large, invisible, exploited workforce of wage laborers are often not reported, because such employees have no health or disability benefits.In every department of Indian power plants employees work in dangerous conditions. Pollutants such as coal, ash, and coal dust may reach levels that are several times the Threshold Limit Value established by the Factory Act. At a number of locations in these plants, workers are exposed for several hours to high levels of humidity with temperatures up to sixty degrees centigrade. As a result, workers commonly contract diseases, including pneumosclerosis, psychoneurotic disorders, skin cancer, and asbestosis, which often remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as asthma or bronchitis by local doctorsThere are many reasons for doctors's ignorance about occupational health hazards. General physicians have little first-hand experience of manual work in mines, factories, workshops, or farms. Nor does institutional medical training reserve space in its curriculum for classes on occupational determinants of disease. Finally, preventive and social medicine is not a lucrative field of practice, since it precludes financial back-door relations between doctors and the private sector.
Working as a mechanical technician in the Ahmedabad Electric Company (AEC), Manvar gained a first-hand feel for the health hazards that prevail in power plants of Gujarat. In 1989, he set up a Quality Circle Group in the Boiler Department of his power plant, which conducted informal environmental audits and health needs analyses within their department. Their solutions to implement a ventilation and toxic cleanup system yielded astonishing results: the boiler unit, once the most hazardous in the plant, is today a toxic-free zone. Not only are the workers safer, they are also much more productive in the new, healthier conditions: it now takes workers less than half a day to reach their former productivity targets. The Quality Circle group branched out to the plant's fuel handling department, to increase worker awareness about safety wear. As a result, though the factory officers had earlier refused such precautions, no worker now operates in the department without shoes and other protective gear.Encouraged by these local successes, Manvar began to extend his group's influence systematically. His project has three principal thrusts: first, to raise awareness of health hazards among workers and turn them into active advocates for worker safety; second, to organize doctors and health officials to be better prepared for occupational illnesses; and, third, with the help of the Occupational Health and Safety Association (OHSA), to lobby for much-needed legal reform that would ensure stricter health and safety regulations in the workplace.Manvar has established a "health police" of more than 200 workers in the Sabarmati power plant, and he organizes workshops for them that demonstrate the necessity of occupational safety to all workers, including the casual and contract laborers who are especially negligent about safety gear and thus particularly vulnerable to accidents. The results of these workshops are documented in regional language publications and widely distributed to laborers. OHSA has set up a Workers Health and Safety Committee in the Sabarmati unit of AEC for the specific task of implementing Quality Circle principles in their units. In order to expand the involvement of a wider community of laborers, Manvar is working closely with the Workers Cooperative Employees Society, a quasi-governmental organization that provides benefits to AEC workers. Managed by the workers, it serves 17,050 permanent employees, and Manvar has mobilized it to hold regular occupational health check-up camps for workers and to help cover related medical expenses. Meanwhile, backed by the Cooperative's infrastructure and funds, he is organizing quarterly demonstrations and exhibitions on health hazards that cut across industries. The exhibitions will establish important linkages with activists and institutions across the state the National Safety Council, factory inspectors, and consumers rights lawyers and engage them in Manvar's efforts. The second dimension of Manvar's project also involves close cooperation with OHSA, which is investing significant resources to offer specialized training to doctors in areas near hazardous factories. In the Sabarmati area, where at least five hazardous factories operate, OHSA has forged connections among 120 doctors and occupational health organizations, and provides doctors with a comprehensive three-month training course on diseases specific to power plants. As the movement gains ground, Manvar will organize at least four meetings every year among doctors, workers's representatives, and lawyers to help the medical establishment understand the realities of factory work and the critical importance of diagnosing "controversial occupational diseases" in ways that shield them from courtroom protocol and the ire of power plant authorities.On the legal front, although lawyers mobilized by OHSA can successfully claim compensation for affected workers under the Employment Insurance Security Scheme, the Workers' Compensation Scheme, and other laws, there has been no articulation of long-term goals. Responding to this absence, Manvar has identified a core group of activist lawyers in Ahmedabad who will map strategies for legal amendments. Their initial step was to gather lawyers, representatives of the labor department, judges, and workers around the same table to push for awareness, support, and finally, real action on legislative improvements. Manvar has identified four areas where the Factory Act requires change: a) the minimum qualifications for industrial physicians and pollution monitoring officers employed by factories; b) new provisions for democratically elected health safety committees that are required to submit environment and health audits to management and workers; c) requirements that doctors from the Employment Safety and Insurance Scheme be employed on the factory premises; and d) workers's welfare schemes such as child care facilities for working women. In addition, at his behest, almost 400 workers have signed a memorandum to the Chief Justice of Gujarat asking for speedy action on health benefits of contract workers. As a result, the Gujarat High Court has ordered the health ministry of the state to investigate and present a report on the issue.To ensure that these success stories are widely reenacted, Manvar is organizing a state-level task force of workers to replicate the strategies he tested in the Sabarmati unit of AEC. In 1998, he organized group discussions among power plant workers in Baroda, Vanacbori, and Kutch. Over 85 workers participated in the meetings. At the institutional level, with his help the Occupational Health and Safety Association has established linkages with key organizations from both the governmental and citizen sectors across the states of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi.
According to Manvar, his story began on the day he joined the Sabarmati power plant. Educated until the sixth standard, he joined the Sabarmati unit of AEC as a casual laborer in 1963. Perturbed by the growing numbers of deaths among his colleagues (he remembers there were twenty-two deaths in 1971 in the Boiler Department alone), he attended workers's education classes organized within the factory premises in 1973. This was a turning point in his life. Though issues like productivity, worker cooperation, unity, and other labor management principles were highlighted in class, the sessions on health and safety caught his attention. Convinced that it was possible to map a cause and effect cycle between the management's apathy toward hazardous working conditions and the rising number of deaths, Manvar sought to know more.He established links with the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH, a premiere national institution working on occupational health concerns) and stepped up his relation with the director, Dr. Parikh. While the rest of the class dispersed after the course and went back to everyday concerns of overtime allowances and daily wages, Manvar began informal discussions with contract and casual laborers. He also maintained his own private record of the deteriorating health conditions and deaths of colleagues, which later proved to be a wealth of information for awarding compensations to affected workers.As Manvar's children grew up and his personal financial responsibilities increased, he nonetheless worked as an individual activist for over fifteen years. He spent much time researching the occupational diseases that afflict power plant workers and building connections with credited partners the NIOH, Participatory Research in Asia, and respected doctors and lawyers with expertise on occupational health issues.