Uttarakhand tunnel collapse highlights the precarity of migrant workers

On the morning of November 12, Ravi Kumar finished his night shift at the construction site of a tunnel on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri national highway in Uttarakhand two hours earlier than usual because of Diwali. As he walked out of the tunnel around 5 am with about 20 other labourers, some of them spotted debris falling from the roof.

Soon after the labourers reached their rented accommodation about half a kilometre from the construction site, their phones started buzzing. The tunnel had collapsed with 41 labourers trapped inside. Among them was Anil Bedia, one of Kumar’s four roommates. All five men hail from villages near Ranchi in Jharkhand, located 1,500 km away. In fact, as many as 15 of the 41 trapped workers are from the eastern state.

“We did not make much of the debris then,” Kumar told Scroll. “In any case, there was no way to alert those inside. There is no mobile phone network inside and the construction site is 2 km from the entrance of the tunnel…Had we gone back even we would have been trapped.”

More than nine days since the tunnel collapsed, rescue teams have still not been able to reach the trapped labourers. On Tuesday, an endoscopic camera captured their first visuals since the collapse. Rescue teams have been providing food to the labourers and speaking to them through water pipes. Union minister for road transport, Nitin Gadkari, visited the site on Saturday.

Part of the Char Dham project to build all-weather roads to connect four Hindu pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand, the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel has been commissioned by the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, a company owned by the government of India.

But neither the government company nor the private firm that bagged the contract to build the tunnel have directly employed the workers. As a result, the workers lack formal contracts of employment, benefits like accident insurance and even safety training.

‘We’ll leave as soon as our friends are rescued’

Twenty-year-old Ravi Kumar hails from Ormanjhi village, 34 kms from Ranchi. His roommate, Anil Bedia, who has been stuck inside the tunnel, belongs to the nearby Khirabera village, which falls in the same block.

Anil had joined work just a week before the collapse, following in the footsteps of his brother Naresh and cousin Rajendra Bedia, who have been working on the tunnel project for six months. Naresh got lucky on November 12 as he was on the day shift. Rajendra, meanwhile, is stuck along with Anil.

“I don’t know what condition Anil and Rajendra are in,” Naresh Bedia told Scroll. “Our project supervisor told me on November 16 that he had spoken to Anil…He is alive at least.”

Like Anil, Kumar had joined the site recently. He was earlier employed at a bridge construction site within Jharkhand, where he was paid Rs 11,000 a month. “I was told I will get 17,000 here,” Kumar said. “When I came here, I was asked to sign in a register and show my Aadhaar Card for age verification.”

Both Bedia and Kumar said they had not received a written contract. Bedia added that he was not aware if they were eligible for insurance benefits or compensation in the case of casualty or injury at work.

Scroll has emailed questions to both National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited and private firm Navayuga Engineering, which has the contract to build the tunnel, asking for the terms of employment offered to the workers. This article will be updated if they respond.

Anil Bedia (20) hails from Khirabera village near Ranchi.

Bedia and Kumar also said they had neither received any safety training nor briefed on any standard operating procedure in emergency situations before they started work.

“I used to do agricultural work in my village and came here as the pay was higher than what I was earning there,” Bedia said. “But now we will go back home as soon as our friends are rescued.”

‘I want to meet my father’

The desire to be safely back home strikes a chord in Simradhab village of Giridih district in Jharkhand, where 55-year-old Budhan Mahato is praying for the safety of his only son Subodh Kumar.

“He used to work as an electrician in Giridih till August before he went away for work,” Mahato told Scroll. “I did not know he was going to work in a tunnel in Uttarakhand. Had I known I would not have let him go.”

In the early hours of November 12, Mahato received a phone call asking him for his son’s Aadhaar number. “I was only told that the call was from Subodh’s workplace but the moment they asked me to give his Aadhaar number, I realised that some mishap had taken place and they wanted to confirm his identity,” Mahato said. He later learnt about the tunnel collapse through the news.

Like the other workers, Subodh Kumar had followed his uncle Viswajeet Kumar, who was already employed at the site. Viswajeet Kumar, whose family lives in the same village, is also trapped inside the tunnel. Neither of the two families had been contacted by a control room set up by the Jharkhand government for providing updates about the trapped workers. Viswajeet Kumar’s son, Rishi Kumar said he accessed the control room phone number from the internet.

However, the control room did not have any new information to offer, Rishi told Scroll. “I dialled the control room number a couple of times but they only said that the tunnel is being drilled into from two-three spots…I had already seen that on the news six hours earlier,” he added.

Rishi said that he knew nothing about what condition his father was in. “I spoke to the contractor who got my father the job but even he could not say anything. One of my uncles has gone to Uttarakhand to find out more,” he said.

Viswajeet Kumar hails from Simradhab village in Giridih district.

Mahato, meanwhile, has heard from his son, but that only added to his distress. “A relative of mine went to Uttarakhand last week and got one of the officials to speak to Subodh through a water pipe,” he said.

“Subodh was crying and said ‘I want to meet my father’.”

Breaking into sobs, Mahato added: “My son is the only earning member of the family, my wife is bedridden for the last 20 years…Please do something to rescue my son…the government is doing nothing.”

Subodh Kumar (24) is a relative of Viswajeet Kumar and lives in the same village in Giridih.

Plight of migrant workers in focus, again

The 4.5 km-long Silkyara-Barkot tunnel was approved by the central government in 2018. The contract of the Rs 1,383.78 crore project is held by Visakhapatnam-based Navayuga Engineering Company Limited.

All the workers who spoke to Scroll said that they had got the job through sub-contractors of Navayuga Engineering.

Outsourcing the hiring of workers to sub-contractors often allow firms to escape accountability in case of an accident. For example, in August, after 17 workers were killed in a crane collapse at the construction site in Maharashtra, the police booked the sub-contractors of Navayuga Engineering and VSL Private Limited, the two firms executing the project. It was not clear whether the firms were also implicated in the case.

Gautam Mody, the general secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative, told Scroll that construction sites across the country had a maze of sub-contractors working for the firm that had bagged the contract. In cases of accidents, this system of subcontracts makes it difficult for workers and their families to get compensation, even though “the law says that the responsibility lies with the principal employer”. He added: “…there is no denying that the government of India is the single largest employer of illegal contractual labour.”

The lack of a formal contract of employment also makes it difficult for the governments to identify workers in case of a mishap. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Jharkhand government had launched the Safe and Responsible Migration Initiative in December 2021 for registration and monitoring of migrant workers from the state.

On Monday, Rajesh Prasad, joint labour commissioner of the Jharkhand government, told Scroll that the authorities have not yet verified if the workers trapped in the Uttarakhand tunnel had registered themselves for the Safe and Responsible Migration Initiative. Prasad is part of the three-member delegation team that went to Uttarakhand the day after the tunnel collapsed.

Prasad said that 1.39 lakh workers have registered themselves for the initiative and the Jharkhand government has set up permanent help desks in Ladakh and Kerala. Nearly 10 lakh Jharkhandis work outside the state, he added.

“Families of workers who are registered with the Safe and Responsible Migration Initiative will get Rs 2 lakh from the government under this scheme in the case of accidental deaths and families of unregistered workers will get Rs 1.5 lakh,” Prasad said. “In cases of disability, the registered workers will get Rs 1 lakh and others will get Rs 75,000.”

However, none of the families of the workers that Scroll spoke to were aware of the Safe and Responsible Migration Initiative. “Nobody from the government has reached out to tell me what steps are being taken to rescue my son,” said Subodh Kumar’s father, Budhan Mahato. “Politicians have come and assured me that my son will be back but what will I do with assurances?”

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