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Poor safety norms in mega projects 'led to' migrants' death: Mizoram bridge collapse

By Kirity Roy* 

It has been widely reported in the media that at least 26 migrant workers from West Bengal were killed after an under-construction Railway bridge collapsed in Mizoram on 23rd August, 2023, all of them are from marginalised sections, either from Dalit or from religious minority group. 
We send our heartfelt condolences to families whose loved ones have been taken away from them due to this tragic event. We demand for proper investigation of the incident and due compensation to the families of the victims.
But as a human rights organization we cannot let the incident go away with just condolences. It is quite horrific to recount the number of casualties among the workers in these dangerous projects. In 2020, in a Hindi news portal named Amar Ujala, it was reported that at least 80 workers have lost their lives building the Atal Tunnel. We are seeing a repetition of the same in this case. This repeated incidence of deaths is simulating some genuine question on the safety standards of the work place in this mega-structure-projects.
The utter negligence of the government towards the lives of the working class, especially the migrant workers was exposed during the Covid-19 lock down. From the repetitive incidents which are putting the life of these fellow citizens in danger, we can understand the apathy is systemic. In India, the government has no proper register for the inter-state migrant workers. 
The migrants leave for other States in search for work at their own peril. Article 19(1)(e) of the Constitution, guarantees all Indian citizens the right to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India, subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of the general public or protection of any scheduled tribe. However, people migrating for work face key challenges including:
  • lack of social security and health benefits and poor implementation of minimum safety standards law,
  • lack of portability of state-provided benefits especially food provided through the public distribution system (PDS) and
  • lack of access to affordable housing and basic amenities in urban areas.
The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (ISMW) Act, 1979 provides certain protections for inter-state migrant workers. Labor contractors recruiting migrants are required to: (i) be licensed, (ii) register migrant workers with the government authorities, and (iii) arrange for the worker to be issued a passbook recording their identity. Guidelines regarding wages and protections (including accommodation, free medical facilities, protective clothing) to be provided by the contractor are also outlined in the law.
But the Central government had not made any concrete and fruitful efforts to ensure that contractors and employers mandatorily register the workers employed with them enabling access to benefits under the Act.
The State Government cannot be absolved either. The lack of work opportunities in the State of West Bengal and a lower rate of wage are forcing an outward migration. For example, according to a report published by the Reserve Bank of India in 2020, there is huge disparity in average daily wage of the workers in different parts of India. Per se, the average daily wage of a non-agricultural worker in the State of West Bengal was INR 291.0, while the same was INR 670, almost double, in Kerala.
This disparity forces a huge number of people to pursue an uncertain journey to find livelihood from one part of the country to the other. The state of West Bengal and Bihar contributes a huge number of migrant labourers in the construction projects in the Southern and other developed States in West Bengal.
While all of the States in India have had a huge construction boom in recent times, the inequality in the average wage of a construction worker is quite striking. In West Bengal the average daily wage of a construction worker in West Bengal is INR 333.4, while in Kerala it is INR 837.7.
We have learnt through the media reports that many among the deceased workers are from Indo-Bangladesh border region of Malda and Murshidabad district. As an organisation working in the border region for the past 25 years, we have seen that the rate of unsafe migration is much higher in the border region due to illegal restrictions put in place on the livelihood of the people by the Border Security Force (BSF).
We have submitted 121 complaints from three districts along the border to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the other government authorities regarding illegal restrictions and livelihood violations. But, sadly no proper measures have been taken by any authorities till date.
Due to all of these reasons the people from the State of West Bengal are under-taking unsafe migration and ending up in the death traps. Since the incident we have seen the representatives of the Union and State government have engaged in a blame game of “who did this”. In reality, all the appendages of the government are to be blamed equally for this tragic incident. We strongly condemn this blame-game after such a tragic incident.
We want to remind the people in power that it is their responsibility to execute the constitutional trinity of “Equality, Liberty and Fraternity”. If, a part of the population has to put their lives in danger to earn a meagre livelihood, it is the responsibility of the government.
We would also like to remind the government that the unorganized workers contribute nearly 50 percent to GDP and only about 6% of unorganized workers are covered by social security measures. More focus should be made on skilling the unorganized workforce (mainly agricultural labour) to make them better equipped in acquiring jobs in the organized sector.
In conclusion, we demand a full and thorough investigation of the tragic incident of Mizoram to reveal the true cause. All those who flouted safe regulations and caused the deaths of workers must be booked under charges of murder and tried in the court of law. These repeated incidents have to stop immediately. The government must take up fruitful actions to protect the rights of the migrant workers as stated in domestic and international laws. We also implore all the stakeholders to call for the same.
---
*Secretary, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM)

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