The drilling machines constantly humming for the last two-and-a-half months fell silent at all four tunnel construction sites, part of river-linking project in Indapur tehsil, after eight persons — most of them labourers — plunged to their deaths in a 200-feet giant duct on Monday evening. The incident has triggered a wave of fear among the 300 odd workers who are employed for tunnel construction as part of the ambitious Neera-Bhima river-linking project, with many of the labourers unsure whether they would continue to work for the project.
The bodies of seven workers — which included a civil engineer, a site supervisor, an electrician and five labourers — were sent to their respective homes. Seven of the eight who died belonged to Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, while one was a local electrician, Rahul Narute. His last rites were performed early morning on Tuesday. There were conflicting reports on Tuesday about the number of people who died in the accident. Pune Rural police, also quoted in The Indian Express report, had said nine people had been killed.
Although the Pune Rural Police have registered an “accidental death” case, workers and villagers say that the accident was a result of gross negligence on the part of the trolley operator as well as the contractor – the latter, they say, should have installed a safe shaft elevator instead of a bucket elevator which hangs in the air with the help of nothing but steel cables.
Police said they were still figuring out how the incident occurred. Local residents and workers who were present on the site at the time of the accidents described what they saw. Malhar Malve, a farmer who stays barely 30 feet away from the site, said that he was carrying tea for farm labourers working in his field when he heard a loud thud. The elevator box had been raised till the top of the crane hit the horizontal bars. “I saw that the elevator box carrying the workers had rammed into the horizontal bar supporting the pulley. Within a moment, the steel cable snapped due to the impact and the box fell down right in the middle of the well, making a huge crashing sound. Those of us who were around rushed to see. There was no chance anyone could have survived. The well is too deep and the box fell on the tough rock. The bodies were crushed into pulp when they were brought out,” said Malve.
The questions that remain unanswered for the labourers and the villagers: Why did the box continue to rise vertically after emerging from the duct, instead of travelling horizontally away from the duct so that its occupant could get off? Did the remote device operated by a staffer, which controlled the movement of the elevator, not function properly? Did the man operating the elevator make a mistake?
Police have said that prima facie the incident appeared to have occurred due to negligence on part of the contractor in establishing and operating the elevator structure. The police, however, are yet to register a formal complaint in this regard.
According to Bapu Bangar, Deputy Superintendent of Police, they have registered a case of “accidental death” and are continuing the investigation to find out the causes of the incident and if there was any negligence which led to the accident. He said that none of the relatives of the victims have approached them with a specific complaint alleging that there was any negligence.
“We are trying to reach Rahul Narute’s family. If the family members make statements and are willing to register an FIR, we will investigate the allegations. If they don’t approach, we will continue our investigation in the accidental death case and in the course of investigation if we come across specific evidence about negligence or anything else, then we will register a complaint ourselves under suitable sections,” said Bangar.
The accident at site number 5 has caused panic and fear among the workers of all four sites, spreading the gloom in the residential areas where they stay in temporary hutments.
A 35-year-old drilling worker from Odisha who has worked on half a dozen tunnel construction projects in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and has been working at Akole site for the last six months, said that he finds the safety arrangements made at all four sites insufficient and below standards.
“They should have a shaft-supported passengers shift which is much safer for transport of workers. Everywhere else I have worked, they used to have those. But nobody cared about it here and labourers had to lose their lives,” said the worker who did not want to be identified. He said that he’s feeling dreadful since last evening and may not continue his job. “Now the work has stopped due to police case. However, even if it starts, I may not continue. I am really afraid of entering the tunnel in that rope elevator,” said the worker.
Pune District Collector Saurabh Rao said that the primary investigation carried out by the revenue department officials did not point to any “negligence”, but added that a team of officials from industrial safety, irrigation departments and Public Works Department (PWD) were collectively probing the case.