On May 30, neighbours Wayajed Ali, 25, and Abdul Amin, 24, bade goodbye to their families in a village in Assam’s Bongaigaon district. A contractor promised the two — sons of daily wagers and school dropouts — “a job in Bengal”. But it was in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh’s Itanagar that the duo landed up three days later. From there, they travelled another 400 km north to Damin in Kurung Kumey district that borders China, where they set up camp to work on a road construction project with 30 other men from Assam.
Ali’s father Bakkar Ali says he heard from his son all of three times after he left home – first when he reached Itanagar, then 15 days later from Damin, and finally on July 3, when he told his father he would return on July 5, in time for Eid on July 10.
But as the family waited on July 5, Bakkar says he got a call from the contractor that his son and others had “fled” the camp.
It’s a fortnight later. Apart from Ali and Amin, 17 other labourers working on the Border Roads Organisation’s (BRO) Sarli-Huri road construction project, about 90 km from the India-China border, remain “missing”. There is no mobile connectivity at Huri or Damin, leaving the families uncertain about what has happened to the 19 — among the youngest of whom is approximately 16, as per relatives.
The Kurung Kumey district administration says that they first heard about the labourers who had “fled” on July 13, and launched a search operation immediately – to no avail.
Kurung Kumey Deputy Commissioner Nighee Bengia told The Indian Express that while a rescue team was already conducting a search operation, an SDRF team was on its way to Damin, and an IAF helicopter had been requisitioned.
“The route they took was through the jungle, there is no road there. The area is inhospitable, filled with deep gorges, steep hills, poisonous snakes and a river. That is why the rescue operation has been so difficult,” Bengia said.
The Deputy Commissioner added that it was normal for labourers to be brought from Assam and other states for big construction projects in Arunachal. Many tribes in the state do not engage in construction labour, he said.
On why the labourers decided to “escape”, Bengia said there was no clarity. “In the last few weeks, two subcontractors (who had got the labourers from Assam) went home, leaving the workers behind at the camp. There may have been a ration problem, or a financial problem… The contractor who pays money was not there for many days. Also, Eid was coming up,” the officer said. “But all this is speculation. We do not know why they left.”
Initial reports suggested that the men left after being denied leave for Eid. Some families claim the labourers were being threatened to stay. The district administration said reports on Tuesday that the body of one of the labourers had been found in a river had been found to be false.
The construction of the Sarli-Huri road began in May 2006, under Project Arunank of the BRO, and is now nearing completion.
A senior BRO official told The Indian Express that while the BRO hires labourers and carries out most of the work itself, it is routine to outsource some of the work to an external contractor to “expedite” the process. “In this case, it was the latter. The labourers who are missing do not report to the BRO. The entire operation on that stretch of the road — including the manpower, resources, machinery – was outsourced to a local contractor of Arunachal Pradesh. The BRO has no role in this… the terms and conditions, pay, everything is between contractor and labourer,” he said.
However, the BRO officer admitted, there was no question that the sites were “difficult” to stay at. “There is no mobile or Internet connectivity, and it is common for labourers to head home in a month, no one wants to stay for long,” he said. “We do not know what transpired between the contractor and labourers in this case.”
Bengia Bado, who runs a company called BB Enterprise, is the local contractor to whom part of the construction was commissioned. Bado in turn has many subcontractors from Assam under him, who bring labourers from the state. The Indian Express reached out to Bado, but got no response.
Bakkar says the last time he spoke to his son Ali, he sounded very “disturbed”. “He even said he felt he was in danger, that he wanted to escape and people there were not allowing him to come home,” he says. “But we are poor, our bread and butter comes only from jobs like these and travelling such distances is not out of the ordinary.”
In Kokrajhar’s Malgaon, seven men have not returned home. “We are barely able to process what has happened,” says Jaharul Islam, a local village leader. “The contractor, Rezaul Karim, promised Rs 700-1,000 a day for the work. The boys who went are young, many of them are students, and from very poor families. So for them, going was more of a compulsion.”
They were trying to track contractor Karim, the villagers said.
Islam says one of the boys called him for help from Itanagar, saying they were being taken to the China border. “They asked me to bring them back. But that is the last we heard from them.”
Sakimuddin, the uncle of 16-year-old Manowar Hussain, also from the same village, says they were poor farmers and had no idea the boys would be taken so far. “We have not spoken to Manowar since they left,” he says.
In Kamrup district, Joynal Abedin, who is an imam at a mosque, says he last heard from his son Inamul Hasan on July 3. “He told me he had borrowed somebody’s phone to call home for 10 minutes. He said the people at the camp were threatening him, stopping him from coming home,” says Abedin, adding that the last few days have been “chaotic”. “I am an imam, I’m usually calm and composed. But despite this, I cannot help but break down.”