Chennai: The 45.1 km long phase I of the ongoing Chennai Metro Rail (CMRL) project is the city's mantra for better public transport. However, the state-of-the art project has been in the news due to three fatal accidents, two involving its own workers, and the third and latest one on Tuesday night, when a crane being deployed by a Metro Rail worker collided with a two-wheeler being driven by a software engineer during the night shift at Teynampet. The techie lost his life.
Accidents, especially fatal ones, are not uncommon in any huge project. Experts say that even the Taj Mahal had its share of misfortune during its construction. While work continues uninterrupted at the Chennai Metro Rail sites, the accidents have also raised a few pertinent questions: Shouldn't there be better safety mechanisms in place for our labourers?
At a time when borderless manpower is making better economic sense for both the project executors and the workers, shouldn’t there be better safety nets for these workers, almost all of whom hail from impoverished villages in the Hindi heartland, and who are unlikely to have had any schooling and are probably quite unaware of what is due to them? It is not a career fast track for these men, and yet they board a train down south in the hope of earning better wages.
Especially when they go down in the line of duty? Only a few days ago, on January 10, Dimple Shah, a worker, was crushed to death and three others were injured when they were caught under a launching girder (an iron structure used to place concrete pillars in position) at the site in Alandur. Months earlier, in August 2012, a Bihari worker was killed and six others were injured in an accident at the Metro Rail site near Pachaiyappa’s College.
When these workers sign up for the job, are they informed of their rights and dues? Is there a sensitization program for these workers slogging in a land where the local language is unknown to them, and any accident or mishap could leave them potentially at the whims of sub contractors?
When approached, CMRL officials said that the various infrastructure companies who have been contracted to complete the project have opted for insurance cover for the workers.
“In the event of a fatal accident, there are no middle men involved at all,” says an official. According to him, in such cases the state’s Labour department takes up the case and after processing the necessary papers, the compensation amount is handed over to the Labour department of the state from which the victim hailed. “It is a transparent mechanism," he says.
Officials point to the compensation made in the case of the worker who perished in the accident near Pachaiyappa’s College. Apart from the Rs 1 lakh compensation given by the Tamil Nadu government, L&T the contractor and Shelmac, the sub contractor who hired the worker, jointly handed over Rs 1.5 lakh. The insurance claim amounted to Rs 8.9 lakh.
CMRL officials also say that the health and safety measures in place at the sites are ‘world class.’ “You won’t find this kind of work culture anywhere else in India and the various contractors have taken the lead in ensuring safety, but achieving zero accident is not always possible, despite everyone’s best efforts,” they add.
Officials also rubbish the argument held in some quarters that a migrant worker, deployed as a crane driver, may not know the roads and locations in another city. “Regardless of one’s mother tongue, a driver only needs to read the signs. Whether the road is clear, if the green signal is on, and if there is a no entry sign anywhere, since these rules are common all over India,” points out an official.
CMRL officials may have ensured best practices, however, exercising a little more caution never hurts anyone. For instance, while moving heavy equipment around during the graveyard shifts, deploying additional navigation assistants may help avoid accidents such as the one that occurred on Tuesday at Teynampet.
The Metro Rail (Phase I) is expected to become fully functional sometime in the first quarter of 2014, and become a viable mode of public transport in the city.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist