The prayers of the entire country have been with the brave efforts for rescuing trapped workers in Uttarakhand. This is also the time for realizing the seriousness of the very difficult, hazard-prone and risky conditions in which dam workers toil in India in remote areas, particularly the Himalayan region. Whether it is the Uttarakhand disasters of 2021 or 2013, or the more worksite related accidents at other sites, dam workers have been paying a heavy price for their unsafe working conditions.

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 has 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 microsilica 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. P.C. 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 14 February 2010 6 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. 10000 each for the families of dead workers and Rs. 5000 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 Pradeshin November 2015,, 2 workers died and 6 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.

Some years back Orissa’s Minister of State for Labour who also headed a committee of the Orissa Assembly on migrant labour, said after visiting the Salal dam site in Jammu and Kashmir that those migrant labourers 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, 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.

Over 154 workers were killed in a span of 12 years, as over one worker was killed every month during the construction of the Nagarjunasagar dam, according to an estimate given by M. Gopal Rao, a former senior official. Accident risks included electrical short circuits, collapse of scaffolding, misfires while blasting, capsizing boats and epidemic outbreaks. On one occasion the workers (and their families) missed their watery graves by a hair’s breadth when an uncontrolled flow passed through the diversion tunnel. Six persons working behind a wall were sucked into the gate slots and killed.

In the controversial Sarder Sarover project of Gujarat, several reports of alarming exploitation of workers were received from time to time.

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 neighboring areas.

These are only a few cases of the glaring exploitation of laborers employed at dam-sites which have come to light. For every case reported it is certain that many others go unreported.

Local labor officers have been found to be under the influence of employers in most of the cases. With large-scale dam construction activity going on in several parts of the country, including in several very remote regions, it is important that a nation-wide survey of the working and living conditions of laborers at dam sites should be made and the necessary steps to improve their conditions should be taken, with special emphasis on improving safety in more risky and hazard-prone areas like the Himalayan region.                  The writer is a journalist and author. His latest books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.

Bharat Dogra is a senior journalist and author


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