Odh community in Delhi’s Sanjay colony: Digging earth to a dead end

Members of the Odh community known for their skills as earth diggers go where machines cannot and do what few can, clearing the way for laying of cables.

Written by Abhishek Angad | New Delhi | Updated: October 3, 2016 11:28 am
Odh community, digging graves, earth diggers, digging tunnels, labours, delhi Odh community, india news Members of the Odh community at work, making a ‘hole pass’ — a tunnel — in Mongolpuri. (Express Photo)

“… Odhi mitti ke ache jankaar hote hain. Mitti ke rang aur gandh se swabhav padh lete hain. Mitti ki satah aur dabav bhi khoob pehchante hain. Rajasthan mein to aaj bhi kahawat hai ki Odhi kabhi dab kar nahi marte” — Enviromentalist Anupam Mishra in his book “Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talab”

On September 9, around 9 am at south Delhi’s Bhatti Mines area in Sanjay Colony, nearly 100 people are gathered outside a house; men and women sitting separately, but united in grief. They are mourning the death of Mahesh (27), who is survived by his wife and two children.

Mahesh, his relatives and friends from Bhatti had reached Bhiwadi in Rajasthan’s Alwar district on September 7 night. The journey of about 80 km was for livelihood. They had to dig and lay down internet cables. The sum assured was an estimated Rs 500 per head and the group did not want to miss out on the opportunity because it came once in three days on an average. Mahesh’s brother Vinod Kumar says they were working between 5 am and 6 am on September 8 when they heard a “loud explosion”. They rushed to the source of the noise and found Mahesh lying unconscious. “When we took him to hospital, the doctors told us he had died of electrocution,” Vinod adds.

The tragedy was familiar. It is a sorrow that has frequently haunted the Odh community in the small JJ cluster — once a village known as Bhagirath Nagar — who have died while working. Of the roughly 40,000 population in the cluster, about 25,000 are from the Odh community.

Odh community, digging graves, earth diggers, digging tunnels, labours, delhi Odh community, india news Jai Singh’s brother Kartar shows the bouki, a tool used by the Odh community for digging work. (Express Photo: Abhishek Angad)

The Odhs are primarily known as earth diggers. They earned a living mining red sand in Bhatti mines for years, but the mines closed in the early 90s and they switched to digging trenches and tunnels. They do it through a specialised equipment they have designed, the bouki. It is a hollow iron cylindrical structure attached to an iron pipe and is used to make a hole in the ground, following which a person tightens the screws manually making holes for laying cables — internet and electrical. The resigned refrain here is: “Bouki chalane walon ki bahut mautein hui hain (There have been several deaths of people using bouki).”

The Odhs migrated from Pakistan after Partition and settled in parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Odisha. In his book, environmentalist Anupam Mishra has noted that the community’s prime occupation was to “make wells and ponds day and night”— so many of them that “one cannot count”. Mishra writes, “There is a saying that Odh drinks water everyday from a new well.”

The Odh community settled in Bhatti mines area in the late 70s. Chander Pal, a member of Sanjay Colony Bhatti Mines Residents’ Welfare Association, says after 1996, people of this area designed the bouki and took up work of digging in Delhi to lay internet cables. “Almost 90 per cent of the work done to lay fibre cables needed for internet connection has been done by the people of Sanjay Colony, as we have the expertise in this kind of work. When there was no work left here, people looked for opportunities outside,” Pal adds. People regularly go to Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana for work, says Pal.

However, in the last 20 years, the number of people taking up the digging work has dwindled to half, he adds. According to Pal, only about 10,000 people from the community here are in the profession at present. Many have taken up other work for better prospects and to stay away from the unsafe nature of earth digging. A death such as Mahesh’s serves as a reminder of the vulnerability of their traditional job. Many have died while working, says Pal. The deathsof four persons in the last five months at work has shaken residents in Sanjay Colony, he adds.

Odh community, digging graves, earth diggers, digging tunnels, labours, delhi Odh community, india news Suman (3) holds a picture of her father Jai Singh, who died in a cave-in at work. When she asks about him, her family members tell her he is the planes that often fly over their house. (Express Photo: Renuka Puri)

Death and aftermath

For 13 days from September 9, friends and relatives sat under a tarpaulin outside Mahesh’s home, observing the ordained period of mourning. For the first few days, their priority was getting hold of the contractor who had assigned them jobs in Bhiwadi to get compensation for Mahesh’s wife and children.

Mahesh’s uncle Phool Singh says only after they hired two vehicles and took around 20 people to Bhiwadi did a compensation of Rs 50,000 materialise. “There was a skirmish with the pradhan of the area, but we used a source and went to the police station. We got a compensation of Rs 50,000, and were assured we will get Rs 3 lakh more within a few days. Now, the contractor and the pradhan have stopped receiving our calls. We are waiting,” says Singh. The compensation given for the family of three is not enough, he adds.

An inquest proceeding was initiated in the case at Bhiwadi police station. Asked if the case was of ‘death due to negligence’, Mahaveer Singh, the SHO of Bhiwadi police station, says, “The inquiry is not yet complete, but both the parties mutually agreed on a compensation.”

Mahesh’s friend Kumar says they did not receive their wages after the incident occurred. “While digging, Mahesh’s bouki hit a live wire inside the ground. It sounded like a firework was set off inside the pit. The contractor did not inform us about any live wires or gas pipeline in the area,” says Kumar. Incidentally, two days before Mahesh died, his relative, Subhash (37), had died in a similar mishap. “We were mourning, but had to go for the job to keep the home fires burning,” says Kumar.

Subhash died in a ditch he was digging near Tila Mod police post in Ghaziabad. He was allegedly burnt to death when his bouki hit a gas pipeline. The leaking gas caught fire as a candle had been kept in the ditch to illuminate the area.

Subhash’s elder brother Raj Kumar (40), who quit earth digging in his twenties and is an autorickshaw driver now, says he has been to Tila Mod police post four times after his brother’s death, but his complaint has not even been lodged.

Subhash’s friend Sanjay, who was with him the day he died, says a supervisor, Anil, had given them wrong information about the location of the gas pipeline. “We saw Subhash burning and could not even go near him,” Sanjay adds. Asked why they use candles while digging, he says, “Candle light illuminates the entire area and this cannot be achieved by other light sources in such places.”

Supervisor Anil declined to answer questions about the allegation that he had passed on wrong information about the gas pipeline to the workers, saying, “Maalik se baat kijiye (Talk to the owner).” The ‘owner’, contractor Gopal Gupta, says he got the work for laying down cables from state-run BSNL. Gupta says he is ready to give compensation to the family members of Subhash, but adds his hands will be tied if the family takes the legal route. According to Gupta, the entire work was for Rs 10,000. “The workers were told about the exact depth of the IGL pipeline, even then they made a mistake. They used candles when they could have used a torch. Also, I heard that some of them were intoxicated. I am ready to help them, but if they take the legal route, then I will do the same because it is a case of accident.”

Despite repeated attempts, BSNL (Ghaziabad) General Manager Telecom District as well as local police officials and the SP of the area could not be reached for comment. Not far from Subhash’s house, the family of Darshan (41) is trying to cope with his death. Darshan died on May 17. Like Mahesh, he too was electrocuted while digging in northwest Delhi’s Jahangirpuri area. A case was registered under IPC section 304 A (causing death by negligence). Darshan and his fellow workers were digging for a company which does intercom installation work. “The accident happened as the company did not follow complete safety procedures,” states the FIR. A police officer says the FIR was quashed after a settlement was reached and the victim’s family was paid a compensation of Rs 6.5 lakh. Darshan’s family is planning to use some of it for the marriage of his daughter Sunita (18). Sunita says, “My mother says the money will soon run out and that is why she has started working again though she is not able to hear properly.” Her two younger brothers study in the government school in the area.

Another resident of Sanjay Colony died at work on July 3. Jai Singh (32) died due to “asphyxiation” in Faridabad sector 59 area after the land caved in. His brother Kartar Singh, who was with him when the cave-in happened, says they had been asked to go inside a 13-ft pit. “The work was to get to an electrical pipe. When we were asked to go down, we protested because the sand was wet and it was not safe. But they insisted,” says Kartar. He adds that while they were working, a portion of the area caved in and his brother was trapped under the debris. “I was saved because my face remained outside the sand and I was able to breathe. When the sand was dug later, my brother’s body was found in a crouching position.” A case was registered under IPC section 304 A against two contractors Suresh and Mandhar and the manager, Baldev, of the company which had taken the work.

SHO Preet Pal of Sector 55 police station in Faridabad says they arrested all three people named in the FIR, and they were later granted bail. Kartar says they reached a settlement with the contractor and Rs 5.5 lakh compensation was given to them. “It was the fault of the contractor and I wanted to pursue the case, but then I thought of my brother’s speech and hearing impaired wife and two kids. My sister-in-law also suffers from night blindness. We wanted their future to be secure and took the money. I did not want to get into the hassle of running around court,” adds Kartar. He says he used some of the money to build a two-room house for the family.

Nature of work, how they do it

The Odh community gets work through sub-contractors they call peti thekedaars. The peti thekedaars too are residents of Sanjay Colony and have been enterprising enough to build contacts with big contractors who turn to them for workers. Peti thekedaar Brij Lal (42) explains that his job is to assemble workers from the area for digging work. “I dig too, but get commission for arranging workers,” says Lal.

He adds that there are three types of digging: an open trench; a hole pass — a tunnel; and digging an area where boukis are used to make holes with widths ranging from 4 inches to 14 inches. He says an open trench work is not dangerous, but the other two are. According to Lal, much of the digging work can be done with machines, but in narrow lanes, the expertise of Odhs is crucial and they go about their work without road traffic being affected.

“The main contractors get huge sums of money and they sub-contract the work to us for either cost-cutting or when they need our expertise. We can dig a tunnel from one side to the other without even disturbing the road above,” says Lal. He adds he has worked with contractors for all major telecom companies. “The CCTV cables in Connaught Place were laid by us,” he claims.

Apart from the inherent dangers, the payment too is irregular in the profession, says Lal. He adds he makes around Rs 15,000 a month and is often in debt. He recalls having worked for a company, laying down internet cables in areas such as Vinay Marg, Niti Marg, Kamraj Marg, Park Street, Lodhi Road and Mandir Marg in 2015, and workers not receiving payment for more than three months. “We had dug 2,225 metres of underground area and also laid down the cables. We received payments for our daily expenses, but dues of around Rs 2 lakh was not given to us for more than three months. Our matter was resolved only when we went to Labour Minister Gopal Rai’s office,” says Lal.

On how members of the Odh community work, another peti thekedaar, Laxman, says, “Once the digging starts, one man, with his knees bent, keeps throwing the earth behind him and another picks it up. A third person clears the earth.” Laxman too swears by candle light, saying no other light source works as well. He adds that depending on the kind of work, payment of workers is between Rs 100 and Rs 200 per metre of digging.

Why the community feels aggrieved

The people of Odh community feel they have been neglected despite their work, which is never acknowledged. Incidentally, Sanjay Colony faces the threat of demolition.

According to reports, in 1991, after the closure of the Bhatti Mines, infrastructure support to the area was suspended. The Supreme Court ordered demolishing Sanjay Colony in 2006 after the entire area was declared forest area. A half-constructed senior secondary school in the area reminds locals of when work stopped. A Government Senior Secondary School for boys and girls, from Class VI to Class XII, in the area has 1,933 students. They study in classrooms with tin roof, which makes it tough during the summer season. A consolation for residents is that there is a direct bus service to the area. Bhatti councillor Rajendra Tanwar (Congress) says, “The school construction was stopped as the matter is sub judice. But the government has built a wall on the periphery of the Asola Sanctuary. Most of the people staying in Bhatti area were born there. Now, it is up to the government look after the people in the area.”

Other deaths during work

July 30, 2014
Sector 57 Gurgaon
Rajesh (25) was electrocuted. A day earlier, his wife had told him to quit the profession.

December 9, 2014
Vijay (20) was electrocuted. It was the first time he had headed out of Delhi for digging work.

July 2012
Kapashera, southwest Delhi
Jaipal (21) was electrocuted. His elder brother still works as an earth digger. “Whenever I dig the land, I feel I am digging my own grave,” he says.

December 3, 2009
Bijwasan, southwest Delhi
Rajesh (21) was electrocuted.

Chattarpur area
Dittu (30) was electrocuted.

Jahangipuri, northwest Delhi
Tejpal (25) was electrocuted. His brother Sompal continues in the same profession.

The survivors

Odh community, digging graves, earth diggers, digging tunnels, labours, delhi Odh community, india news Birju at his shop. (Express Photo: Renuka Puri)

* Birju (in pic above) was trapped after a cave-in while making a tunnel in New Friends Colony in 2010. He suffered nerve damage, which affected his lower body movement. He says he has attempted suicide at least three times since then. Now 30 years old, he uses a wheelchair and has a general store.

* Saheb Singh suffered impaired vision when he fell on a burning candle while working in a ditch a few years ago.