ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Why It Was Important to Win the Silicosis Case in Supreme Court

In a country where the occupational health of unorganised workers goes completely unnoticed, the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Silicosis case strengthens the long struggle of migrant workers in Madhya Pradesh holding the state accountable for life-threatening work conditions. 


The authors are founding members of Shilpi Kendra (now Nai Shruwat). They have authored the reports on silicosis which formed the basis of the public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court. 

This was a landmark judgment for many reasons: it cut through established norms and procedures for recognising workers’ rights and gave it a new perspective. Traditionally, any worker who suffers from an occupational disease or injury must apply for employees’ state insurance (ESI) to claim for injury or death benefit under the ESI Act. But over the years, the ESI has become an anti-worker organisation that avoids addressing workers’ claims by entangling claimants in mind-boggling procedures. Therefore, poor, diseased workers are denied any compensation. The present case is the first time that a group of workers went past the ESI to claim their dues. The judgment also holds the state governments responsible and has directed them to compensate the workers first and then recover the amount from the ESI.

A worker who contracts an occupational disease is at the mercy of the employer, who often simply removes him from employment. The worker and their family are left to fight a lone battle against the factory owner and the ESI. The cases linger on for years together, and the worker either gives up or dies. In such cases, the state governments are never held responsible for their failure to protect the rights of the workers. According to this order, the Government of Gujarat is liable to pay ₹7.14 crore to the families of the 238 workers who died. An indictment of the state government, the order states that, the “state enforcement agencies of Gujarat have failed to adopt appropriate preventive measures which could have saved the lives of poor labourers.” The Court went beyond providing interim relief to make two more organisations accountable—the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the ESI. The CPCB is the apex body in the country to monitor all types of pollution. Following this judgment, the ESI will need to pull its act together and be more sensitive to workers’ claims.

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Updated On : 16th Jan, 2017
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