Labouring for Hydel

They have toiled in the thousands at hydel project sites across Sikkim, often camped in squalor and sometimes also shortchanged. They have also died in the hundreds. They make their wages, but don’t always get treated fairly. Their contribution is never recognized and their welfare receives only token attention…

The mouth of the Adit - III tunnel which was inundated by a wall of water carried by a flash flood in the Rangpo Khola fatally trapping 10 labourers at work about a kilometre deeper on the night of 16 April 2009.

Ten labourers working about a kilometer deep inside the Lamaten hill in the Eastern periphery of Sikkim near Rongli were caught unawares on the night of 16 April 2009 when a flash-flood on the Rangpo Chu tore into the Adit-III tunnel they had used to access the headrace tunnel of the under construction 99MW Chujachen hydel project.

It is still unclear what caused the flash-flood. It is speculated that a cloud-burst higher up in the catchment area could have caused it, but it is unlikely that a cloud-burst alone could have sent down a flashflood 21 metres high on a stream during what is technically still a lean season. At the time, it was also speculated that a natural reservoir created by a landslide upstream might have burst causing the sudden inundation. It is also possible that a combination of the two events – a cloud burst and the collapse of a landslide reservoir – caused the mayhem which ended up claiming the lives of the ten labourers. There are no records offering an official explanation for the flashflood, and it is this general disinterest that underlines how the affairs of those who toil in the thousands to put together dams, dig out tunnels and struggle to tame mountain streams are attended to.

In the Chujachen HEP incident, the tenth body was recovered from its watery grave a full six days later. Agreed, the location was remote, but it still had roads which carried heavy machinery to the area. Yes, the terrain had taken a battering, but that was something the project developers and the officials knew all along and should have been better prepared for. And maybe the disaster preparedness was there on paper, but on location, it was obvious that there were no emergency facilities in place. There were no emergency exits even though it would have been an obvious inclusion given that these tunnels become buckets if water was to rush in. On the first day of rescue operations, even the pump being used to evacuate water from the water-logged deeper tunnel was woefully inadequate for the task, and while these were supplemented with more machines and pumps later, it still took six days for the last body to be recovered.

Co-workers of the drowned labourers monitoring the water pump so that they can retrieve the dead bodies.

State officials were clearly disturbed by the lack of precautionary measures of any semblance or advance warning systems in place and promptly registered a case of culpable homicide. A day later, the site-in charge of the company engaged in the tunneling work was taken into custody. Ten lives were lost on the day, but apart from the Rs One lakh or so compensation which might have been made out to the surviving families, nothing else came of it. There were no convictions; not even for negligence.

Even lay observers had commented that if there was indeed a natural reservoir created by a landslide upstream, someone should have been monitoring it. Even a 10 minute head-start might have been enough for the labourers to escape.

Meanwhile, four years later, in May 2013, the project began commercial operations. It is unlikely that the ten labourers were remembered on that day or even a token plaque installed at the accident site to record their “sacrifice” at the altar of development.

Media reports at the time, while they followed the rescue operations and reported on the working conditions on site, ironically, did not even record the ten names, perhaps because no one else bothered with the names either. In fact, a day after the incident, it was even unclear as to how many labourers could have been caught in the flashflood. A roll-call, one would surmise, could have easily established that. Eventually, only after the muck had been sifted through and ten bodies recovered was the number of dead fixed at 10. Before that, it was feared that 11 lives might have been lost.

One could speculate that the general lack of follow-up or interest among the people about the fate of the labourers or who they were was because they were “non-locals”, trucked in from Bihar and West Bengal. Also, hydel projects see a complicated list of contractors, sub-contractors and labour contractors and fixing clear accountability becomes difficult. Then the workforce keeps changing and their numbers fluctuate and record-keeping and over-watch suffer as a result.

One got a sense of how low the labourers sit in the priority list of those who employ them and agencies which are supposed to look out for them in the wake of 18 September 2011 earthquake which rattled Sikkim. There were no helicopter sorties or even vehicles arranged to assist their flight and thousands walked their way out of North Sikkim, through the litter of landslides, abandoning their pending salaries in the confusion and it is possible that many never even returned to collect their dues. Most of the labourers that one came across at the North district headquarter town of Mangan, from where vehicles could be taken to leave Sikkim, complained and shared their grief and just about everyone said they were relieved to be alive and would not return.

The timing of the earthquake worked in their favour because it came a day after Bishwakarma Puja, that one day when worksites see no work and most labourers are away from the worksites the next morning, busy with the immersion (bisarjan) rituals. It was also propitiously a Sunday. One shudders to think of what the casualty list would have read like if work was underway at all the hydel project sites when the earthquake struck. Most projects in the State were at the peak of construction work at the time with thousands of labourers engaged at numerous sites. At the end, 63 lives were lost in the earthquake all over the State with around 20 of them employed with hydel projects here. How long would it have taken the labour contractors and the authorities to tabulate the number of lives lost had the earthquake occurred on a working day?

While fewer lives were lost, there were still severe travails that visited the hydel workers, with most of them engaged at the Teesta Stage-III HEP in North Sikkim on the wrong side of cut-off Sikkim.

Mangan, which soon became accessible, was crowded with families rushing there in search of their next of kin engaged at the projects and a steady march of labourers walking their way down, most without any money and carrying only the hope of hitch-hiking their way home. Several workers informed that they had not collected their wages for the past 4-5 months, a common practice since they preferred to collect their dues in lump-sum when they finished their contract and had something substantial to take home. In the confusion after the earthquake, they could not get in touch with their pay-masters and were not willing to wait around for too long. Powerful aftershocks were still rattling the State and most were unnerved by the experience. So they fled, abandoning their wages and most never returning.

Official records make no mention of any attempts being made to contact these workers later or of any efforts made to settle their dues.

Although it was claimed at the time that project authorities were making arrangements to evacuate the thousands stranded at Chungthang - the nerve-centre of project works, the earthquake impact and gathering point for people fleeing the district - the testimony of the many who had trekked down unescorted, painted a different picture. There were seven relief camps set up in Chungthang, populated mostly by fleeing labourers.

Claims were made later by project developers about assistance provided to its workers and the assurances made to them. But the numbers did not always add up, the network of project developers, their sub-contractors and then the labour contractors stretching out a paper trail so complicated that the exact number of hydel labourers in Sikkim at the time of the earthquake will never be exactly known. Nor has anyone bothered to follow up on what happened to the lost wages or the PTSD they must have carried home with them.

There is little that one can do in the face of natural events like flash-floods or earthquakes, but it is in the wake of such calamities that the short-cuts taken at the cost of the welfare of labourers gets exposed. While the two instances cited above speak about the big incidents that made the headlines, everyone involved should have woken up earlier to clear indications all along that hydel workers are exposed to more risks than should be their share.

In the year 2001, there was a cholera outbreak in the labour camps of Teesta Stage-V. NHPC had not foreseen the possibility of such outbreaks at labour camps where workers reside cheek-by-jowl with only very rudimentary facilities. It did not have enough medicines and had to borrow supplies from the Sikkim Government Primary Health Centre at Dikchu.

Soon thereafter, the PHC at Dikchu, where the dam for Stage-V is located, started receiving NHPC labourers in the hundreds every day. A PHC is appointed to attend to much fewer patients, no more than a dozen locals on a busy day, but they were inundated by labourers who felt more comfortable with doctors who could understand them, literally. Most of the labour force was Nepali-speaking and the NHPC doctors did not speak the language. Something as basic as communication was ignored when appointing doctors for workers.

Surprised by the high number of diarrhea, dysentery and viral fever cases that were being reported from the labour camps, one of the doctors from the PHC even visited the labour camps and returned shocked by the living conditions. Sanitation was absent and there was no provision for potable water.

And that was only one part of the problem. The number of STD cases being reported were also climbing.

These are basic health issues that are required to be looked into by any project developer. But the squalid conditions of the labour camps have consistently told a different story. The workers are often accused of disrupting the socio-cultural balance of the remote areas where such projects usually come up, but scant interest has been paid to the squalor they have to survive for their wages.

There are labour laws and rules in place to provide for better living and working conditions, but these remain easily bypassed and conveniently overlooked.

Protests at hydel worksites have been reported often, but only occasionally do they sustain unless it involves “locals”. One such episode, and there have been many, was reported at the Dikchu HEP site in June 2011 when labourers abandoned work because the conditions were more hazardous than even they could handle.

After a makeshift bridge to access the worksite at the tailrace tunnel of the project was washed away on 01 May 2011, the workers were made to make it across on a flimsy wrought-iron contraption swinging from a used 12 mm iron wire without any security harnesses to protect against a mishap. They continued this way for a month, but as the monsoon arrived and the river below swelled, they decided they had taken enough and suspended work.

Ironically, the local panchayat tried to mediate and attempted to convince the workers to “bear with the company till a new bailey bridge was constructed”. Eventually, the workers returned to work after a more robust “ropeway” was promised. At the worksite across the river though there remained no toilet facilities and no drinking water supply.

Such situations have surfaced more often than is possible to record here, and there have also been instances of projects shutting down without any communication to the workers. Employees have also been arbitrarily dismissed from service. The point being made, however, remains the same – those who labour the most for hydel are also the ones who are exposed to the most risk, receive the least support and are left to fend for themselves even when they are the most vulnerable. Also, because most of them are “non-locals” they lack the societal support or even interest or the resources to get themselves heard and their woes addressed. Now, with most of the hydel projects completed or nearing completion, there are already much fewer hydel labourers left in Sikkim, most having returned to their homes or other worksites, carrying with them their own horror stories and may be, just maybe, also some pleasant memories of their work in Sikkim.

SummitTimes presents the month-long Spotlight series focusing on hydel projects and climate change in Sikkim and West Bengal. The series has been made possible with support from Wageningen University, NWO and UK Department for International Development [DFID] under Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change research project ‘Enhancing mediascapes for sustainability and justice in the Eastern Himalaya’ coordinated by DLRP, a Darjeeling-based NGO. We will be featuring two articles every week.

More from the Spotlight series:

Sikkim's Hydel Story

Journey from Teestamukh till Tso Lhamo

People of Sikkim - The repository of climate change

A conversation with 3 activists

Two protests

Climate change is getting real for Sikkim's farmers