May 22, 2016

ANDHRA PRADESH: Bizarre Accidents Result in a Nightmare for Workers in the Construction of Capital City

P Satish

22-year-old construction worker named Devendra, from Jharkhand, was killed in an accident at the AP temporary secretariat complex construction site at Velagapudi village on May 10 where a Government Interim Complex (temporary secretariat) is being constructed.

The incident took place when the worker was cleaning a cement mixer with a crow bar. He was trying to clean the inside of the drum when he was sucked in and got crushed to death. It has emerged later that the worker was not wearing the mandatory crash helmet. It has also come out that there has been a delay in rendering first aid to the victim.

 Earlier in March, Samrat Rout (20), a native of West Bengal, was crushed under a rig. This is the second incident at the construction site where the state government is building a temporary secretariat to relocate hundreds of personnel from Hyderabad.

 The Andhra Pradesh government is building six towers which would house the interim secretariat, assembly and offices of chief minister and ministers until permanent buildings come up in the core capital area on the banks of the Krishna. Two leading construction firms – Larsen & Toubro and Shapoorji Pallonji – are executing the work which is expected to be completed by the second week of June. Anxious to complete the Government Interim Complex before June 15, the construction agencies seem to have put the lives of construction workers at risk. Construction of the complex began on February 24. In less than two months, the firms have completed the ground floor. The chief minister had even performed the housewarming ceremony in the early hours of April 25.The state government has asked the construction firms to complete the buildings by June 15.

  The incident sparked outrage among the construction workers numbering more than 2,000 who set ablaze an ambulance, ransacked the furniture, and rained stones on police personnel trying to shift the body. Tension mounted at the site as police in riot gear were rushed to the site. Under pressure from the workers, police brought the body back to the site.

 Leaders of various parties too reached the site and lent support to the demands of workers. CPI(M) leaders led by Ch Babu Rao, CRDA  secretary,  Pasam Rama Rao led the agitation and demanded a compensation of Rs 25 lakh to the next of kin of Devendra. Police indiscriminately lathicharged on workers, agitating local leaders like Lenin was beaten black and blue. They were taken into preventive custody for demanding improvement in work conditions, hike in compensation etc. They were lodged in the Amaravati police station for the whole night and were released only in the next day.

 P Madhu, CPI(M) state secretary, Prasad, CPI(ML) from New Democracy, Goutham Reddy, YSRCP were taken into custody when they tried to express solidarity with the agitating workers at the temporary secretariat complex. The leaders were manhandled and thrown into the van by the police. Highhandedness of the police is starkly visible at every moment in this episode.144 Section was imposed arbitrarily and even MLCs of the PDF were not allowed to meet agitating workers and arrested leaders. The entire secretariat has been turned into police camp and workers were intimidated to resume their duties by calling off their agitation. The delegation of PDF MLCs of AP Council, MVS Sarma, Boddu Nageswara Rao, KS Lakshmana Rao and D Ramadevi, AIDWA state secretary, accused the state government on its culpability for the death of two workers in a short span of time at the construction site. They pointed out that these disasters are waiting to happen as construction firms have given a go-by to safety norms. Workers are made to slog for more than 12 hours in sweltering heat and most of them are suffering from dehydration, they deplored.

 In the background of severe repression also, workers stood their ground and relented only after they were assured of fool-proof safety measures. The state government had to announce a compensation of Rs 20 lakh to the victim’s family bowing to the huge backlash from the workers. It is only a respite for the working class as the construction firms are a huge force to reckon with.

 L&T Company often boasts itself in the media as the biggest construction giant with a catchy slogan “We build India”. If we analyse the casualties taking place at its work stations, we will realise to our horror and utter dismay that it has not learnt proper lessons from its follies at various construction centres. There is a cover-up of the umpteen number of deaths of construction workers that are taking place at its work places. It has been an established practice of companies like L&T to exploit workers to the hilt, wherever it operates – be it in government or in private sector. It engages sub contracts for its works thereby shirking of its responsibility of implementing even a modicum of labour laws. Workers under these sub and mini-sub contractors can never fathom the fact that they are working under L&T. It ruthlessly imposes two shifts on workers (each 12 hours), instead of three shifts and make them slog in the nights too. There is only a five minute break for taking meals as well as to attend nature calls. These restrictions were more agonising for women workers, who are at the receiving end.

 It never faces trouble from the inspectors of labour department, as it mostly undertakes the works of the government and has the patronage of ruling classes. It has the dubious distinction of fudging the number of casualties of workers at its work places. The official statistics from DMRC (Delhi Metro) reflect the fact that 109 construction workers died as on August 2010. As per the media reports, the exact number of deaths of workers in the construction of Delhi Metro, have never seen the light.

 It stealthily engages workers in night shifts for extracting work so as to keep them out of public and media glare. If the workers slog uninterruptedly for long time upto midnight, they naturally lose grip over the tools and machinery and become vulnerable for fatal accidents. Most of the accidents in Delhi Metro happened in a similar fashion. Nevertheless, L&T is unabashedly continuing its exploitative practices. It never employs locals and engages workers from different states with a view to segregate them from the local people. These migrant workers are being virtually treated as bonded labour and they are not being allowed to mingle with local people. They are confined to isolated rooms away from the work places and minimum amenities are being provided to them.

 The sinister agenda is to wean them away from mainstream so that they cannot air their grievances and seek redressal. There is a conspiracy to preempt them to join or form a union. Even after all these draconian measures, if some workers try to raise their voice it will be stifled with brutal repression through bouncers of the company or by using Police.

 This is a heartrending and sordid saga in the light of the 130th May Day celebrated recently. The chief minister of AP chose to be a mute spectator in this unsavory episode leading to bloodshed of hapless workers, where every norm of safety and labour welfare has been flouted with impunity. His government is rolling out red carpet to MNCs, which cares two hoots for the safety and security of workers. Instead of cancelling licenses of construction companies and initiating punitive action against culpable executives and officials, Chandrababu government is resorting to police repression on those who raise voice against this unbridled exploitation.

 Chandrababu government is trying to curb the struggle of the workers  by announcing cosmetic financial measures like death insurance, accidental insurance etc, by deflecting their attention from the root cause of the problems –12 hours uninterrupted work without rest, no minimum wage etc.

  It is time all sections of toiling masses and progressive sections should relentlessly wage struggle against these anti-labour practices and force the government to initiate suitable measures to effectively monitor implementation of safety and labour welfare norms in the construction activities taking place in the state capital.