Now that the rescue of the workers trapped in the tunnel collapse accident in Silkyara has been successfully completed, it is time to look at the wider issue of the very difficult and hazardous conditions in which construction workers employed in very remote locations of the Himalayan region have to toil, far away from their homes.
A recent report in The Tribune (December 1 2023) by Neeraj Mohan has highlighted the poor working condition faced by nearly 400 workers from several parts of the country at Silkyara since 2013. Most of them working in very tiring and difficult conditions are paid only between Rs. 14000 to Rs. 18000 per month for a grueling 12 hour shift, or Rs. 10,031 to Rs. 11,218 for 8 hour shift.
Another report by Gaurav Talwar and Arvind Chauhan in The Times of India (December 1) says that the 4.5 km. long Silkyara-Barkot tunnel had experienced 19 to 20 minor to medium collapses even before the present big one, quoting informed officials. This draws attention to the kind of hazardous working conditions that prevail here. So isn’t the wage given to them highly inadequate? This is a question that needs to be asked increasingly now. Of course the safety provisions must be much better too. In addition many migrant workers employed here being less exposed to the Himalayan environment are very vulnerable to various disasters like landslides and floods. There have been several reports of a number of migrant workers perishing in disasters in Uttarakhand and other hilly areas.
Earlier the extremely tragic death of 10 workers at a tunnel construction site in Ramban on Jammu-Srinagar highway had 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 , 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 W.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. 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 labor 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,, 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 Odisha’s Minister of State for Labor who also headed a committee of the Odisha Assembly on migrant labor, 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 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.
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.
Bharat Dogra is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.