Suddenly, one of the boys fell to the ground while carrying a heavy load up from the bank. Tears rolled down Mohon Mia’s face at the sight.
He explained to this correspondent that two of the boys working at the quarry were his. Akram, 12, and Sagor, 16, had started out that same day after the family had gone three days without any income.
Why was he letting his sons work even though he seemed strong enough?
“I am not doing this because it suits my fancy,” Mohon replied angrily.
“My neck swells if I try to pick up anything heavy because I have been carrying stones since my childhood. Besides I have some breathing problems,” he explained.
This is not a unique case in Sylhet’s stone quarries. All over Jaflong and Bholaganj, which are stone quarry areas, a majority of locals are employed in the industry and face short and long-term occupational health hazards throughout their lives.
According to the register of Gowainghat Health Complex, at least 10,000 patients take treatment from the complex every month, 90% of whom come with scabies, diarrhoea, pneumonia, asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
The stone extraction industry in this border region in Sylhet employed about 500,000 people until recently. The numbers have dropped since a government ban on extraction.
Dr Rehan Uddin, in-charge of Gowainghat Health Complex, told the Dhaka Tribune that the dust created during stone crushing was one of the chief sources of health problems for locals.
“The stone workers develop COPD or Asthma due to the heavy dust problem.
“Besides, we receive a huge number of child patients, suffering mostly from pneumonia and diarrhoea,” he said, adding that at least 60% of the complex’s patients were below 18.
For some of the patients these conditions are fatal. Dr Rehan said of the 13 patients who died in their hospital last year, four died for COPD and seven others from water-borne diseases.
He could not produce the numbers for deaths in the previous years, having joined the complex recently.
Besides, almost 90% of the people suffering from illnesses do not seek proper treatment for their ailments.
A study on the stone quarries conducted in 2014 by Assistant Professor Assraf Seddiky of Sylhet’s Shahjalal University of Science and Technology shows that of the stone quarry workers, 28.34% seek treatment from traditional healers such as ‘Kabiraj’ or ‘Jharphuk’ while 57.50% go to local medicine stores and hack doctors.
Assraf Seddiky told the Dhaka Tribune that most of the people in this area were living in a highly hazardous environment.
“They drink the water from the same river where their sewage is also being dumped,” he said.
The air in the locality is filled with heavy dust, resulting in lung infections. This and the water-borne diseases resulted in a number of deaths, he said.
Another big problem in the area was malnutrition, said Assraf.
“When I conducted this study, 98% of the workers I interviewed told me they only take one meal a day.”
In Mamar Bazar, a commercial area in Jaflong at the entrance of the stone quarry, this correspondent found at least 18 medicine stores. Most of the stone quarry workers live around this place. Almost each medicine store had a large number of customers, who were buying diarrhoea and cold medicines without any prescription.
Jaflong is at least 20km away from Gowainghat where the health complex is located.
The visit was organised by Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), funded by Terre des Hommes.
Md Makbul, owner of Makbul Pharmacy, told the Dhaka Tribune that as the stone extraction is off now there were fewer customers at his store.
“We are getting 30 patients daily now-a-days, of whom 10 come to us for different kinds of pain while about three or four children come with diarrhoea or a cold.
“They are so poor they have no money to see a doctor, but we try to serve them by providing medicine,” he said.
Is he qualified to prescribe medicine to people?
“We don’t know much but we provide treatment and they feel better and can get back to their work, that’s it,” replied the man.
Dr MA Halim, owner of Jaflong Pharmacy, said most of the people in the area suffered from water-borne diseases and dust-related problems.
“Almost half of the patents are below 18 and about one-third are children. If the government does not think about alternative employment for the people in this area, it will be difficult to stop this practice,” he added.