Skip to main content

Himalayan tragedy: Labour laws for migrant workers violated at Ramganga dam site

By Bharat Dogra*

The extremely tragic death of 10 workers at a tunnel construction site in Ramban on Jammu-Srinagar highway has again drawn attention to the serious hazards faced by workers employed in highways and dams in Himalayan region, several of them in very remote areas. These workers were trapped after a landslide hit the under-construction tunnel on May 19, followed later by one more landslide. Apart from these deaths, the remaining workers suffered injuries.
While overall conditions at many such construction sites are known to be hazardous, according to preliminary reports the risks here increased due to sub-contracts which resulted in work being handled by those who did not have much experience or knowledge of such hazardous conditions.
Sub-contracting is a common practice in such work and the principal employer gets away with less legal liability for hazardous conditions. Workers face more risks under this system and their rights are adversely affected.
This was a well-known landslide zone and even before this serious accident several commuters had suffered injuries or near escapes in the middle of falling boulders. Surely better protection steps should have been taken well in advance when work was to be taken up in such a hazardous area.
Five of the workers who perished in this accident were from West Bengal while three others were from Assam and Nepal. The serious risks which such workers from very far away areas, isolated and unfamiliar with local conditions, face can be well-imagined.
Numerous cases of landslides and accidents in the course of construction and widening work on highways have been reported from the Himalayan region. In addition the work on dams and hydro projects in the Himalayan region has also involved increasing risks for workers, generally migrant workers from remote areas with hardly any local resource base.
In one of the worst dam-site accidents, at least 29 workers were killed in a serious accident at the Tehri dam site (in Uttarakhand) on August 2 2004. Many other workers were injured and/or rescued amidst great difficulty.
The Tehri dam project had long been controversial as one of India's most unsafe dam projects posing a grave risk to the teeming cities and villages of the vast Gangetic plains below. This accident at this dam site further confirmed several doubts raised from time to time about the weakness of the nearby mountains and the safety of the dam. It also focused attention on highly hazardous conditions in which dam workers toil in many distant parts of India.
It was subsequently realized that the death toll in the Tehri dam disaster on August 2, 2004 could easily have been much higher. District officials conceded that as many as 109 workers were present in the Diversion Tunnel T-3 of Tehri Dam when the rockslide took place. In fact some reports expressed apprehensions that the death toll was actually higher.
It has been pointed out that micro-silica treatment which could've helped to avert this tragedy should've been completed much before. Adequacy of other safety and rescue arrangements have also been questioned. 
Dr PC Navani, Director, Geological Survey of India, who worked at the Tehri dam site for 15 years, told a leading magazine Frontline that the accident happened because work was still continuing in the 'unlined' area of the shaft during the rains. "Work in the rainy season in the unlined area should've been avoided at all costs."
A worker Ganesh also was rescued from a tunnel told 'Down to Earth' magazine, "How can they allow this to happen? Even earlier, small accidents have been taking place and many workers have lost their lives in these tunnels."
Soon after Tehri disaster, on August 7 2004 twenty workers were trapped inside a tunnel in the Parbati hydel project in Himachal Pradesh, about 60 km. from Kulu. They were rescued, but at one time there was a real danger of their lives being threatened.
On February 14, 2010 six workers died and 16 were seriously injured in Kinnaur district (Himachal Pradesh) when stones and boulders destabilised by the blasting work carried out for dam construction fell on a temporary settlement of workers. 
 This accident occured at the 1000 MW hydel project Karcham Waangtu. Two workers tried to save themselves by jumping into Satluj river but later their whereabouts could not be ascertained.
The government later announced a paltry grant of Rs 10,000 each for the families of dead workers and Rs 5,000 each for injured workers. Some news reports said that the number of workers who died could be higher and it was difficult to get reliable information as job cards had not been prepared for most workers, violating labour laws. Several of the workers who died or were injured were migrant workers.
In another tragedy in the same Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh in November 2015,, two workers died and six workers were injured in a blast in Shongtong-Karcham project.
The tragic accident at Tehri dam site should have awakened the authorities to the crying need for better and secure working conditions for dam workers toiling in extremely difficult conditions in distant parts of the country.
As a lot of dam construction work takes place in very remote areas, several construction companies adopt the strategy of bringing workers from very remote, impoverished areas. Then attempts are made to shut them off from the local population so that whatever happens to these workers remains a secret. This arrangement enables the employers to get away with glaring violations of minimum wage laws, neglect of safety requirements and non-payment of compensation.
Unfamiliar with risky local conditions, five workers who perished were from West Bengal, three others were from Assam and Nepal
Some years back Odisha’s Minister of State for Labour who also headed a committee of the Odisha Assembly on migrant labour, said after visiting the Salal dam site in Jammu and Kashmir that those migrant laborers of Orissa employed there who resisted oppression were being thrown into the Chenab river ( as reported in newspapers at that time).
It was revealed in the findings of this committee that these workers were unable to communicate with persons other than their employer and supervisor. When the work for the dam was over they were herded into ramshackle huts and locked from outside.
According to a probably incomplete list of workers who died at the Ramganga dam worksite in UP, in the plains close to Himalaya foothills, published by a local newspapers "Bijnore Times", 88 workers perished at this dam. In addition as many as 501 workers were injured, many of them rendered physically handicapped for the rest of their lives.
In the case of the controversial gigantic Tehri dam project, very serious violations of labour laws were reported from time to time. This information could come to light because of the initiative taken by some local trade unionists in bringing the existing deplorable conditions to the notice of the Supreme Court and the subsequent inquiry ordered by the court.
R.C. Aggarwal, a judge of Tehri Garwal, conducted an inquiry into the living conditions of workers employed at the Tehri dam project. The allegation made against the employers of the project were confirmed by this inquiry and incredible evidence of ill-treatment of workers and violation of safety requirements came to light.
When this was published, workers were thrown out and assaulted with the help of local goons. Subsequent investigations by journalists revealed conditions to be equally bad at some other hydro-electric projects in neighbouring areas.
These are only a few cases of the glaring exploitation of labourers employed at dam-sites which have come to light. For every case reported it is certain that many others go unreported.
As highway and dam workers in Himalayan region often face high risks and isolation together with exploitation the government should take significant steps on the basis of urgency for their protection and safety.
---
*Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; recent books include ‘A Day in 2071’, ‘Planet in Peril' and ‘Protecting Earth for Children'

Comments

TRENDING

North Gujarat gram panchayat bars villagers from dealing with Muslim hawkers, traders

By Our Representative  A gram panchayat in North Gujarat has barred its residents not to buy anything from Muslim traders and hawkers. An order of the Waghasan group gram panchayat of Tharad taluka of Banaskantha district dated June 30 states that the decision has been taken in the wake of beheading of a Hindu tailor after he posted a derogatory writeup on Prophet Mohammad in Udaipur. The gram panchayat resolution says, anyone seen buying or selling any commodity from a Muslim hawker or trader would be fined Rs 5,100. Bringing this to light, Mujahid Nafees, convener, Minority Coordination Committee, in a letter to Gujarat chief minister Bhupendra Patel, says, the state government should take legal action against the panchayat chief who has signed the “unjust” order. The letter says, the act of the sarpanch and other signatories is a violation of rule of law of the state and threat to peace, pointing out, the move is in violation of Article 15 of the Constitution, which says that none

Unlike Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India: Ukrainian scholar tells 'Indian friends'

Counterview Desk In an open letter to "dear Indian friends", Anastasia Piliavsky, born in Odessa, Ukraine, studied at Boston and Oxford Universities (on a Rhodes Scholarship), and now teaches at King’s College, London, has said that she faces "deep moral dilemma", personally and professionally, over the "astonishingly unified Indian response to the war in Ukraine." Based on her interaction with a "number of thoughtful and caring Indian friends", in this letter, she says, she is "reeling at the ubiquitous silence at, justifications of or outright support for Putin’s terror, which now prevails in India, at the ubiquitous #IStandWithPutin and #istandwithrussia hashtags." She insists, India must understand, "Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India. Soviet leaders, beginning with (the Ukrainian) Nikita Khrushchev – who declared hindi rusi bhai bhai – built up deep political and cultural exchange with India." Text : I

Technocratic globalism, tyranny? Health Ministry warned: bill to 'enslave' Indians

Sandeep Pandey, Tushar Gandhi By Rosamma Thomas*  Union of Concerned Citizens, a group comprising Magsaysay Award winner Prof Sandeep Pandey, human rights activist Tushar Gandhi, former judge of the Bombay High Court BG Kolse Patil, pediatrician Dr Jacob Puliyel and several renowned Indian citizens have written to the Union Health Minister cautioning him against tabling the draft Public Health Bill in the Monsoon Session of Parliament. “The Public Health (Prevention, Control And Management Of Epidemics, Bio-Terrorism And Disasters) Bill, 2017 and a Prospective Bill of 2022 as discussed in news articles, is straightforwardly violative of Fundamental Rights of the citizens of India and therefore, Ultra Vires of the Indian Constitution. It contravenes several International Treaties and Conventions including the Nuremberg Treaty of 1947 which was enacted to ensure that no country would repeat such inhuman medical atrocities on fellow human beings”, the 12-page letter reads. “Strangely, t

Protesters demand release of Teesta Setalvad, Sreekumar, seek review of SC order

By Our Representative  Protests broke out across India on June 27 following Teesta Setalvad’s arrest demanding her immediate release. Sabrang India , a site run by Setalvad, claimed she was “arrested on trumped-up charges after the Supreme Court dismissed the petition moved by Zakia Jafri demanding an investigation into the larger conspiracy behind the 2002 Gujarat violence.” The protesters also demanded release of former DGP Gujarat police RB Sreekumar, also arrested simultaneously. The protests were preceded by over 2,200 people from across the globe signing a statement demanding their immediate release. Leading signatories such as People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) general secretary V Suresh, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) convenor Medha Patkar, former Naval chief Admiral Ramdas. “The state has used the observations made in the judgment to falsely and vindictively prosecute those who had struggled for justice even in the face of state callousness and complicit

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Electoral bonds scheme 'compromises' voluntary nature PM relief fund donations

By Rosamma Thomas*  The Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) is meant to collect voluntary donations from the general public, either individuals or organizations, to enable assistance to people in times of natural disaster, or for expensive medical treatment. That fundamental voluntary character of the fund, however, has changed in recent years.  The gazette notification of January 2018 announcing the Electoral Bond scheme states, in Clause 12 (2): “The amount of bonds not encashed within the validity period of fifteen days shall be deposited by the authorized bank to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund”. The Union government has, thus, through notification, directed funds to be deposited into what was meant to be purely voluntary. Commodore Lokesh Batra, who has been campaigning for transparency in government functioning, holds that once a gazette notification has been issued directing that funds be deposited into the PMNRF, the character of the whole fund has changed,

'Highly abnormal': AltNews journo's arrest suggests 'deterioration in media freedom'

By Bharat Dogra*  Leading media organizations have come out in strong support of recently arrested journalist Mohammed Zubair. These organizations include, among others, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India, the Delhi Union of Journalists and DIGIPUB, a platform for several important digital media organizations. All these organizations have condemned the recent arrest of the noted journalist and demanded his immediate release. While leading human rights organizations and political parties have also made somewhat similar statements, the strong support of media organizations is particularly important as the effort of the authorities has been to try to present the arrested journalist as someone who has been indulging in irresponsible journalism.  In such a situation the support of those media organizations who are familiar with his work and who are most capable of judging the quality of his work is very important. In this context it is important that some media organization

Majoritarian silence helping Hindutva forces 'handover' national resources to corporates

By Bhabani Shankar Nayak*  The majority of Indian citizens are witnessing the persecution and everyday violence against their fellow citizens who are Muslims and religious minorities. The growing assaults on reason, science, secularism, Indian democracy and constitution are going to be landmarks in Indian history of diminishing democracy and citizenship rights. It is clear that Hindutva ideology is directly promoting sectarian politics of hate which is dangerous for the unity and integrity of India, peace and prosperity of Indians. The majoritarian silence helps in empowering Hindutva and their electoral dividends. From witnessing the persecution in the sidelines to the active participation and cheering loud or silence accelerates violence against our neighbours and our fellow citizens. How and why do majority of Indians stay silent and contribute to the persecution of their fellow citizens who are Muslims and religious minorities? The question baffles me as an Indian because I have gr

Electricity Bill: Centre's reform measures contain 'carrot and stick package' for states

Counterview Desk  The Peoples’ Commission on Public Sector and Public Services (PCPSPS), claiming to be a network of eminent academics, jurists, erstwhile administrators, trade unionists and social activists, seeking consultations with stakeholders with those who are against the government’s decision to monetise, disinvest and privatise public assets/enterprises, has said that the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill-2022 will have far-reaching impacts on the finances of states. Insisting that the proposed Bill would lead to “assault on India’s federal structure”, in a statement, it says, it would weaken the finances of states’ power distribution companies, have adverse impact on utility employees, cripple the states' finances, impose a heavy cost burden on the smaller subsidized consumers (especially farmers), and benefit only corporate business houses. “States cannot afford to ignore the far-reaching implications of the Bill on their economy, finances, agricultural and industria

Cops 'refuse to register' complaint after BSF shot landless worker off Bangla border

By Our Representative  Kirity Roy, secretary, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), and national convener, Programme Against Custodial Torture & Impunity (PACTI), in a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), referring to the incident of “firing and execution” of a poor Muslim youth, has alleged that the 26 year old was was shot at “without giving any warning” one and half kilometers inside the Indian territory from Bangladesh border by an on- duty Border Security Force (BSF) personnel. Stating that the person, Ruhul Mondal, belonged to an Other Backward Class (OBC), and hailed from Ramnarayan Para village under Sagarpara police station in Murshidabad district, West Bengal, Roy in his representation said, the BSF person who shot at him is “attached with Singpara Border Outpost, 141 Battalion”, underlining, the BSF has now floated “self defense theory” to cover up its operation. According to the BSF officials, the incident took place in the jute fields in