Last gasps

  • 29/09/1995

The story of Chinchurgheria, a village in West Bengal, is a chilling expose of the apathy of businesspersons, the government and politicians.

In 1986, the people of Chinchurgheria and a few neighbouring villages joined a new stonecrushing unit. Within 2 years, villagers working as labourers started suffering from silicosis. With no clue about the identity of the killer, villagers died unmedicated and in agony. Only when a forest ranger visiting the area saw the symptoms and informed the people and some doctors that the disease was identified.

It is only then that the workers and their families demanded compensation from the factory owner. He refused; they struck work. But the owner had big clout with the authorities and the local politicians. In his defence, he showed them a "No Objection Certificate" from the West Bengal Pollution Control Board. The villagers accuse the village pradhan -- who is also a member of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha -- of being in cahoots with the factory owner and sabotaging their strike.

Government officials initially dismissed the racking silicosis as tuberculosis. But on occasion when local press reports tighten the screws on them, they take refuge in a conspiratorial silence.

Meanwhile, almost every house in the village has lost its breadwinner. It is old women who are now desperately trying to make ends meet and feed their grandchildren. The factory has shut shop and there is no indication of compensation.

The film vividly captures the anguish of distraught silicosis patients waiting, not very stoically, for death. An important point made towards the end of the film is that even local leaders fail to support such life-and-death issues or raise them in the state assembly. Every once in a while, old cases get replaced by new ones and are promptly backburnered.

With all its sincerity, and perhaps because of it, the film loses its impact -- it is just too long. A shorter film would have been just as good, perhaps even better. It's a classic case of overkill-by-empathy: the filmmakers willy-nilly became activists. What suffers is not so much credibility as the brevity that is the hallmark of intellection.

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