Shruti Iyer


This article presents a close reading of several Public Interest Litigation (‘PIL’) petitions before the Indian Supreme Court since the 1980s, analysing how the figure of the worker suffering from silicosis, an occupational lung disease, has been constructed in judicial discourse. I trace the shifts in the vocabulary of law which variously constructed informal workers, exposed to dust in the workplace – first, as a community facing forced working conditions; then, as residents suffering air pollution; and finally, as victims of a human rights violation that the state was bound to compensate. This paper builds on and contributes to existing critical scholarship on PIL in India, and demonstrates how the Supreme Court has been subject to varying pressures in its decision-making, issuing a confusing range of orders as a result. I show that these cases represent an important but contested site of claim-making. Through these cases, this article emphasizes that we can discern the outlines of a broader trajectory in India – where state responsibility for informal workers has been negotiated with the identification of informal labour’s interests with the public interest. I also suggest that the route these cases have taken might offer us reason to be sceptical of the promise of the ‘public interest’ for informal workers in India.

Custom Citation

Shruti Iyer, 'Silicosis and the State: Configuring Labour’s Interest as the Public Interest' (2021) 17(1) Socio-Legal Review 67.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)