Nine people have died in industrial accidents in Chhattisgarh in the last six days, part of trend in a state that sees 100 such deaths every year, according to figures with the labour department. The latest two accidents happened Tuesday, killing three, one of these victims at the Bhilai Steel Plant — where a water pipeline burst and gas leak had killed six people last week — and the other two at Mahamaya Ispat Ltd in Raipur.
Facilities ranging from SAIL’s flagship plant at Bhilai and aluminum giant BALCO to smaller sponge iron units have suffered accidents, and the government, trade unions and experts all agree it has been largely due to poor safety standards, which in turn are attributed to the increasing practice of assigning even technical work to unskilled contract labourers. At Bhilai last week, contract worker Vikas Verma was washed away while attempting to plug a water leak on pipelines that had not been replaced in three decades.
In the dank and dark underground coal mines of north Chhattisgarh, over 60 metres below the surface, a notice on the walls asks miners to lie down in the event of a blast. This correspondent recently spent a day with miners working under hazardous conditions in an industry governed under a special law, the Mines Act of 1952. A helmet and boots are the only safety equipment for labourers and supervisors working amid fumes and harmful gases. They said they are being exploited and knew nothing about the hazards they face.
They are also poorly paid. While labourers on the payroll have a fixed salary and health insurance, those on contract get just Rs 140, less than MNREGA wages, for 10 hours.
“Even the work of regular employees is being outsourced to contracted workers. A task as sensitive as blasting in mines is assigned to private, non-technical labourers,” says Korba-based activist Laxmi Chauhan.
Industries admit health is a concern. “The health issues of contractual workers have been raised by several agencies and unions, and thes are under our consideration. We are already insisting that contractors give their labourers PF and other long-term benefits,” says Milind Chande, PRO, South Eastern Coal Fields Ltd, a PSU that operates the largest coal fields in Chhattisgarh.
In Raipur, which has over 40 sponge iron plants, workers are often seen without helmets. On Tuesday, two labourers were crushed under a crane in Mahamaya Ispat. At the Bhilai plant, two DGMs who died last week had not worn masks. And on Tuesday, a worker was electrocuted.
Unions say it is to cut costs that companies use contracted workers and ignore safety standards and workers’ health concerns. “The Bhilai plant once had 84,000 regularised workers but today has only 32,000, even though its production has increased threefold. Coal India Ltd produces 80 per cent of the coal in India but 60 per cent of its labourers are on contract. Most such workers are untrained and know little about safety. Private contractors who provide this workforce have no concern for safety either,” AITUC national general secretary Dipesh Mishra says.
The union labour ministry’s Industrial Safety and Health Department, too, attributes the high number of accidents in Chhattisgarh to the conditions, lack of skilled labour and poor law enforcement. “Most of the accidents I observed here involved unsuitable conditions and unskilled labourers,” says ISH deputy director Vijay Soni, whose task is to ensure health, welfare and safety measures for industrial workers in Chhattisgarh. “Contractual labourers are not even properly compensated after accidents. If they are trained, the ratio of accidents can drastically come down,” he says.
In the biggest ever industrial accident in Chhattisgarh, over 41 labourers had died in 2009 when an 275-metre chimney under construction at a 1200 MW power plant had collapsed on BALCO’s premises. A judicial commission blamed the company and the administration, with Justice Sandeep Bakshi noting substandard construction material and mechanical and civil engineering faults. Bakshi said the construction violated land and municipal laws, structural designs were not approved, quality standards were not followed and security measures were not in place, and blamed labour department and municipal corporation officers for negligence.
“When there was a fire in a West Bengal hospital, even the hospital’s owners were made accused. In Balco’s case, even after the Bakshi report, the top management and owners were not charged. The government instead tried to shield the owners,” says Bilaspur High Court advocate Sudeip Shrivastava, who fights such cases.
Vijay Soni agrees: “Punishment and penalty are not effectively imposed after accidents. These should be enhanced.”
Incidentally, earlier this month, a labour court awarded one year in jail to two former SAIL’s top officials, executive director Ashok Kumar and GM Hanumat Rao, for neglecting safety concerns leading to the death of a labourer. The court noted that the two often showed such negligence and deserved strict punishment.