By A.S. Josie, Chennai
In Chennai the ECR and OMR – two roads that stretch south down the beautiful Madras coastline – have opened up one of the fastest growing real estate destinations for the professional classes of Madras.
Living down these roads allows for fresh sea breeze, a walk on the beach, fancy restaurants, and a reasonable commute to work in Chennai or in the IT corridor.
It is no surprise then that more and more high-rise buildings and service centres are shooting up in the old village areas, and more and more of the backwaters, fishing, shrimp catching, and bird nesting sites in the area are disappearing.
But this is not a story of the destructive forces of development on pristine landscape, which topic itself is a professional pursuit these days, but rather how these buildings are being constructed – on the backs and bodies of migrant labourers from eastern India, coming from as far as Assam, down through Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, the Andhra coast to Tamil Nadu.
The construction boom promises jobs and cash flow which are only a distant dream in the villages from where the labourers come.
Hence, migrant labourers have arrived in the tens of thousands to Chennai over the past few years. They can be found working at nearly all manual labour work-sites, where they labour with no safety gear.
In the early morning hours, they throng the labour recruitment spots or “addas”’, waiting to be picked up or called for work. On a good day, they can get Rs. 8-900 for the day’s work. Sometimes they get work for multiple days.
The workers struggle to balance their wages, with the cost of rent and food, and remittances back to their villages.
How did Hashim escape from death?
Hasim was one such labourer, who arrived two years ago from the Godda district in Jharkhand. He was part of a chain migration of workers who had learnt of the job opportunities in Chennai from an elder relative who had been coming for the past 20 years.
Hasim stayed in a small room with an asbestos roof which he shared with 2 other labourers. It was one of a string of 5 small rooms built on the open roof (first floor) of one of the village homes behind the ECR.
A 4-storey building was being constructed six inches from the edge of the house wall. One day before the cyclone hit Madras, on a Sunday, and while it was raining, the owner of the neighbouring building had his workers put up a 3 foot brick wall on the roof of the building.
Despite its height, the building owner, whose name was Ayyappan, had not hired a professional builder, but to save costs directly employed a mason and labourers. The short wall was not at all secure.
As Hasim slept with 2 other of his male relatives, the powerful Cyclone Machaung which was picking up in the wee hours of Monday December 4th morning, whipped that wall off, and it fell two floors below going straight through Hasim’s asbestos roof.
The two other workers who were sleeping in there, were directly hit and died within the hour. Hasim was furthest from the point of direct contact but suffered deep wounds in his abdomen and bowels.
The workers in immediately adjacent rooms heard the sound of something crashing, and then they heard Hasim’s crying and yelling. He had dragged himself out of the room, and was calling out.
They discovered the two dying workers. They called an ambulance. One worker died before the ambulance came. The other died on his way to the vicinity hospital. Hasim was taken to the city central Royapettah Hospital.
Disabled wife and four months to recover
Hasim has now had surgery on his abdomen, and it is fully bandaged. He has been saved from a very close shave with death by timely intervention.
He lies in a bed in the male ward of the public Royapettah hospital in the heart of Chennai, where doctors state that he has to remain for another 4 months.
When I see him, Hasim’s face is contorted in pain and anger. The police have come and gone, other workers and media persons have come and gone, the men from the Jamaat have come and gone (one of the two men who died had been a member of the Jamaat), and nobody has left him with any solace for the loss he has faced.
He is now awaiting his wife who is on a train from Jharkhand with her brother.
He tells me, by way of describing her, she has lost an arm. The accident happened when she was working in Delhi as a sanitation worker. I am unsure how to defend her, but simply say that that is okay, it is good she is coming, she can still help him when she comes. He nods.
I cannot fathom his thoughts, both husband and wife in the prime of their lives, and now badly disabled.
With Hasim at the hospital, are three of his fellow relatives and friends, who also work in the Kanathur area. They have been with him continuously for the past 4 days. One asks me, what is the purpose of a media article?
I suggest, so that people can know the exact facts, and can figure out how to best help, whether with money, publicity, and legal support. He is not really convinced.
The older relative who is with him tells me that in his 20 years of working in Chennai, nothing like this has ever happened. He knows he is also in a distant way the person “responsible” for the chain of other workers arriving from his zilla in Jharkhand, as he was the first to arrive.
A worker who sleeps in the adjacent room of Hasim’s says he has the images of his friends emblazoned in his brain. He had had dinner with them, chicken and roti, the night before they were killed.
They had watched the 20-20 cricket match on their phone, before he had retuned to his room to sleep. He did not go to work today, he was too disturbed.
The bodies of the two killed workers have now reached Jharkhand and have been buried.
Apathy from govt and company, solace from Jamat
The scope of what Hasim and his wife now have to face – to make the police, the building owner, the companies, the Welfare Board, the Jharkhand government, the Tamil Nadu government – do their work diligently, so that the families can get some compensation and care, and their bodies and dignity can recover and not get more weakened from the stress of what they are facing, is daunting.
They neither speak Tamil nor English. Hasim does not know the name of the tile company he was working for.
The workers only know that nobody from the tile company has come to see the dead and injured workers.
Daily wage recruitment has allowed companies to wash their hand off all responsibilities! Perhaps they also do not know Hasim’s name!
The building owner has not offered the workers any compensation, despite clear liability, or shown any concern.
The Chennai and Tamil Nadu government equally has shown little interest in this accident till date, despite the event happening during a storm for which they were supposedly fully prepared.
They had clearly not monitored construction sites and migrant labourers’ resting spots. They had not provided alternative accommodation for them.
They had not warned employers or building owners to desist from keeping migrant labourers on site on these storm days.
Such an accident could well have been anticipated and avoided.
They had not warned building owners to desist from building on storm days. Such an accident could well have been anticipated and avoided.
We have not even touched the issue of whether any of the employers, contractors, or migrant workers, are registered under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act.
Why are labourers’, especially migrant labourers’, lives so cheap and replaceable!
(Writer is senior social activist based in Chennai)
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