Rana Sengupta

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2009
This description of Rana Sengupta's work was prepared when Rana Sengupta was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009 .


Rana Sengupta works with cooperatives of stone quarry workers to create innovative systems that give them ownership of mining activities. This not only helps to protect their rights and their environment, but to also gain access to safety, welfare, and social security provisions. In doing so Rana is addressing the three pillars of sustainable development: Environmental protection, social equity, and economic well-being in a sector that threatens fragile ecosystems alongside human dignity.

The New Idea

Rana’s idea is very specific to stone-quarrying, which is categorized as a minor mineral and not governed by the government’s Mines and Minerals Act. Hence, it is open to quarrying by private contractors and individuals. The sector is neglected by the government on the one hand and exploited by private parties on the other. Rana’s work involves organizing informal workers into labor unions and then enabling miners’ collectives to bid for their own contracts; ownership allows them to negotiate competitive prices, share profits, and adhere to the prevailing wage rates. More than 10,000 informal stone quarry workers are now members of labor unions and 900 workers are members of cooperatives.

Moreover, with the resulting reorganization of the supply chain, the miners’ cooperatives are also taking on the supply and export of stones and connecting directly to global markets. This is creating what Rana terms an “ethical means of trading in stones,” that is, ushering in a climate of fair wages, fair trade, and the elimination of child labour and exploitation of informal women workers.

Apart from this, with ownership of mining contracts in the hands of local communities, concern for the environment is heightened and compliance with green standards is gradually becoming the norm; forcing private contractors to do the same. More importantly, with power in the hands of the communities, the issues of illegal mining leading to massive degradation of the environment are also being tackled.

The Problem

The Indian economy is characterized by a high level of informal or unorganized employment which comprises 93 percent of the country’s workforce. The term “unorganized labour” is defined as workers that have been unable to organize themselves in the pursuit of common interests. Constraints include the casual nature of employment (often migratory), ignorance, illiteracy, the small and scattered size of establishments, and extreme poverty leading to further exploitation by employers. The “highly distressed” categories among them often become bonded labourers, migrant workers, or casual and contract labourers. Stone quarry workers are among the highly distressed. The global building boom and the demand for smart interiors have created a huge market for natural stone. This has led to a lucrative export trade from countries where rock is plentiful and labour is cheap. India is among the most rapidly growing sources of granite, slate, and sandstone. Due to the exploitation of new sources, prices are plummeting as demand rises. There are as many as 6,000 types of natural stone being worked on in any given day; 9 million tons were imported into the European Union alone in 2007, while granite imports from India to Britain rose eight-fold in the past five years.

What is being ignored in the process is the cost to the environment and the human toll on workers. India’s major quarries are spread over the states of Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Almost everywhere they are worked by migrant labor—people forced by poverty, drought, famine, or failed crops to take up the hardest possible employment opportunities. In Rajasthan alone, there are 2.5 million mine workers employed in over 30,000 small and large mines. Ninety-eight percent of this workforce is tribal or dalit (belonging to the “untouchable” class), which places them among the most marginalized among India’s poor; systematically deprived of their proper wages and state-sponsored welfare and social security schemes.

According to Anti-Slavery International, approximately 1 million children do extremely dangerous work in India’s stone quarries. The low wages of parents (a daily average of Rs 40 to 50) (US.90¢ to US$1.12) is the primary reason for child labor. When debts exceed the parents’ repaying capacity they tend to have their children work in order to supplement the family income or borrow money against their children from contractors, turning them into bonded labor. Moreover, in the absence of any social security measures or worker records, if a laborer dies, the entire burden of survival falls on his or her children. These children are “invisible.” Since they do not exist on paper, the government does not respond to demands for legislation on their behalf.

Despite a Supreme Court ruling, contractors fail to incorporate safety and environmentally friendly standards at the mines. Profits have replaced worker safety. The miners work under subhuman conditions for long hours with an average of six accidental deaths a day. The lack of records helps mine owners deny such accidents. Corruption is rampant and most state officials are hand-in-glove with mine owners and contractors, while the fear of losing their livelihoods keeps workers from reporting to the police. Women are the most exploited, without health care benefits such as maternity leave, they often return to work a day after childbirth for fear of lost wages.

Long exposure to dust particles reduces a worker’s life expectancy by ten years, and occupational diseases like silicosis and tuberculosis (TB) are common among the laborers. Silicosis leads to a dysfunction of the respiratory system causing workers to age faster and eventually lose the capacity to work. They are then often diagnosed as victims of TB, and since TB is not an occupational disease, they are invariably denied compensation by their employers.

Additionally, the cost to the environment is substantial. Small mines and quarries cause enormous damage to the environment but carry on their work indiscriminately because they do not come under the purview of the Mines and Minerals (Development & Regulation) Act. Moreover, the market demand is driving people to make quick profits through mining new quarries, legally and illegally, with scant regard for the environment. For example, in 2005 in Rajasthan state, an ecologically fragile zone, there were 7,771 mining leases for minor minerals besides 15,000 quarry licenses and 18,274 new applications. Along with major minerals, the state was considering a total of 22,626 new applications.

The key environmental problems arising out of such activities are land degradation affecting the topsoil and alteration of land structure due to excavation; degradation of forests and biodiversity; soil contamination, air pollution, surface and groundwater pollution; noise and vibration; and deterioration of the natural drainage system affecting aquatic biodiversity and public health. The quarrying waste is dumped in forest areas as well as on surrounding land, generally without permission, destroying the natural vegetation and ecology of the area. If a quarry proves no longer profitable, the owner abandons it, to move on to new areas. There is no specific legislation in India which covers the requirements for environmental protection during the closure of a mine.

There is also no single agency in India that has the mandate to look into these problems in a holistic way. Different government departments with diverse mandates have led to a situation that is rapidly escalating out of hand. In the end, the boom in the construction industry and the growing exports of minor stones is not benefiting those who mine them. The profits are pocketed by the mine owners and the middlemen/contractors using exploitative practices to employ casual laborers.

The Strategy

Rana set up the Mine Labor Protection Campaign (Trust) (MLPC) after realizing that while many citizen organizations (COs) worked to organize informal sector workers in the mining industry into cooperatives, labor unions, and women’s groups, the effort was ineffective. The priorities of the organizations differed from that of the workers and did not allow the workers ownership over their own issues.

Rana’s approach has turned the movement around. Cooperatives of mine workers now run the movement themselves and have become the face of the campaign, with just technical assistance being provided by the expert organizations. He is also identifying local leaders to take the movement forward. Rana’s strategy can be broadly categorized under three areas: People and governance, economy, and the environment. Through the creation of labor unions, Rana ensures that the workers receive identity cards so that they are no larger faceless and can be identified with the mine owners and the contractor. Moreover, the identity card gives workers a sense of security and of belonging to a collective, which enables them to negotiate minimum wages, weekly holidays, on-time wages, availability of drinking water inside mining pits, and other benefits such as the Employees’ Provident Fund and accident and health insurance. At the same time, the unions ensure that each mine puts up a board with information including the name of the mine owner, the labor contractor, their contact details, the number of workers employed, and the expiration date of the mining lease, all in compliance with the existing law. Once this information is public knowledge, the mine owners and contractors cannot escape their responsibilities. Moreover, each union leader is trained to record accidents, incidents of sexual exploitation, non-payment of rightful wages, and the flouting of environmental laws and norms. Such documentation then builds pressure on state governments to award mining leases only to those operators who have continually demonstrated respect for workers’ conditions and the environment. With such records adversely affecting the renewal of their leases, mine owners are becoming increasingly careful about compliance with laws, standards, and norms. MLPC’s activities have benefited about 50,000 child workers in the sector.

With the unions functioning well, Rana then enables the cooperatives to take on economic activities, with the more entrepreneurial workers taking on the leadership roles. The cooperatives are educated in the aspects of the mining business in preparation for the bidding of mining contracts themselves. Rana then helps them obtain mining leases from the appropriate authorities and connects them to financial institutions. All the 18 cooperatives now own expensive mining equipment such as excavators, cranes, and earth moving machines and are running profitable businesses. Rana has also helped form a state federation of cooperatives which will further network with other states and negotiate with the government at the policy level with regard to fair trade and the formulation of a uniform national stone policy.

Rana’s work has a special focus on women workers and their needs. The self-help groups formed by women workers have set up day care crèches for children of mine workers. Further, in order to address the problems of malnutrition and other health issues including reproductive and child care, the cooperatives manage community kitchens with supplies from the fair price shops owned by members of the cooperatives. The liquefied petroleum gas cylinders used as cooking fuel come from the local gas businesses which Rana brought in as a corporate social responsibility initiative. With the revival of waterbodies, due to compliance with environmental standards, Rana has introduced fishing as a viable livelihood alternative, which has a good market in communities beyond the mine workers.

The result of all these initiatives has been that the insecurities arising from migration have lessened since mine worker communities now move together on contracts and are able to negotiate the markets in a competitive way. This collective strength enables them to dictate selling prices, and pay higher wages, which in turn forces other mine owners to offer similar rates. The cooperatives are now connecting to the lucrative export market and becoming an integral part of the global trade in stones.

Rana’s third area of intervention and perhaps the most crucial is the environment. With the cooperative as a mining contractor, the issues of human and environmental cost are addressed in a sustainable and ethical manner. MLPC volunteers use GIS gadgets to map illegal mining activities and bring them to the attention of the Department of Geology & Mining. Rana has also roped in the gram panchayats (local village governing body) to act as watchdogs on illegal and environmentally hazardous mining activities. All new mining activities have to pass muster with MLPC and as a result, the Directorate General of Mines Safety. MLPC also ensures that tax collection by the state government does not happen without the workers’ permanent account number (PAN). This is highly significant, since a PAN is a validation of a person’s identity as a citizen of the country.

MLPC’s vigilance has not only ensured stringent safety measures but also environmental ones, which include compliance with green standards, the planting of trees and landfills after closure of mines; dumping waste at designated sites; involvement of the panchayats and State Pollution Control Boards to ensure the norms are followed; formulation of collective mining plans by the communities along with the panchayats which take into consideration environmental and developmental issues such as social forestry and watershed programs; and keeping water channels clear of mining waste. The cooperative movement has also helped in garnering the benefits of the National Employment Guarantee schemes for workers that live below the poverty line, assuring them 100 days of employment in state developmental schemes per year. This has also served to further slow migration and been especially beneficial to women.

Health camps, legal assistance camps, and disaster management training are other activities Rana has introduced in the cooperatives. Regular workshops bring together all the stakeholders in the mining industry to debate issues of importance and arrive at a consensus. Rana has leveraged the campaign to take on a leadership role, which in turn has helped him to establish a wider, pan-India network of members and supporters. In a historical move, Rana has changed the state of Rajasthan’s cooperative policy by bringing in a court mandate on maintaining minimum standards. MLPC is also a prominent member of “mines, minerals & PEOPLE,” a nationwide alliance of all those working on mining issues. MLPC’s continuous activities have helped attract media attention, especially in cases of violations of the law. This in turn has increased workers’ awareness and instilled the confidence to fight for their rights. The government machinery has also been activated, deterring corruption and improving efficiency in the process. As a result, more and more informal groups and workers’ unions have begun to join the movement, leading to the formation of more miners’ cooperatives with other states inviting MLPC to help them carry the movement further and create uniform standards for all states.

Rana has also set up a workers’ helpline in the state so mine workers can easily lodge complaints that are routed to experts and government authorities for quick solutions. This is serving to strengthen the community and provide it with a voice. Rana’s future plans include a strong position in the global marketplace with the cooperatives participating in international fairs and exhibitions and workshops, ultimately becoming an intrinsic part of the international supply chain.

The Person

Born in the state of Jharkhand, a mining hub, Rana grew up in a middle-class family. With both his father and grandfather in the cement industry, job transfers took them from Jharkhand to Gujarat, where Rana studied commerce, and then finally Rajasthan, where he graduated with a master’s degree in social work.

Rana was exposed to mining activities from a young age, he was touched by the subhuman conditions that were forced on the informal workers. In Anand, the home of India’s milk revolution, for his undergraduate degree, Rana studied the highly successful milk cooperative movement carefully; that helped him later to revolutionise the miners’ cooperatives.

In 1999, after completing his master’s degree, Rana joined Oxfam India as a coordinator for their work in the mining sector. He then joined the Mine Labour Protection Campaign, which was funded at the time by Oxfam India, and run by a network of partner organizations, but not formally registered as an organization. However, Rana slowly realized that the campaign was not really benefiting the workers; rather, it focused on serving the agenda of protecting the environment and that of documentation. In the process, mining activity was also being affected, robbing the people of a livelihood, without offering them alternatives.

In 2007 Rana registered the campaign under the state Trust Act and made the miners’ needs the prime focus, along with the need for environmental protection. Today Rana successfully integrates the two under one umbrella, while his wife Sangeeta, who he met during graduation days, assists him with innovative ideas on the welfare of children and women in the mining areas. The couple lives in Jodhpur with their two sons.