Twenty-four-year-old Sumith Kumar is traumatised by the deaths of his friends whose bodies he and other workers dug of the rubble. He himself narrowly escaped possible death when a wall on the construction site in Bengaluru collapsed and killed five of his friends – he and his brother were in the next shed. Despite this, he is determined not to go home.
The debris of the compound wall that fell on the sheds
Sumith left his home in Kisanganj village, Bihar, five years ago to support his family. Their agricultural land has been lying fallow because they do not have the money to cultivate it.
“Our family is poor. We have two sisters, one of whom is 18 years old, which is considered a marriageable age,” says Sumith, who works as a carpenter at a construction site in Yelahanka. His 19-year-old brother Chotu joined him two years ago and is a helper. He too was injured on Sunday.
“Everyday someone gets injured, especially helpers. But when we report it, the supervisor brushes it off or asks us to figure it out,” Sumith says, adding that “minor accidents” such as electrocution, fractures and cuts are not covered by construction companies. The company had paid for the bodies of some of the workers to be sent to their home towns.
24-year old Sumith and his shed in the background
Returning home though, despite the dangerous work environment, is not an option. “Our parents are old and don't make much by working on other people's lands. They get between Rs 150 to Rs 250 a day,” Sumith says.
Of the Rs 20,000 he and Chotu earn every month, they send at least Rs 15,000 back home, but in the last two months they haven’t been able to do that because the company has not paid them for seven weeks except for Rs 1,000 they are given for food. “I would have to forgo that money if I decide to leave,” he says.
19-year old, Chotu Kumar who was injured on September 6
Workers who leave a work site aren’t a problem for contractors or construction companies because people like Sumith are easily replaceable. Like many expanding cities in India, Bengaluru is a hub for construction activity, attracting migrants from the villages of Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand and other states, for various reasons.
“Neither the village nor the city where we come to work as construction labourers gives us any job security,” says 31-year old Deepak Burman, from Cooch Behar village in West Bengal.
After completing Class 12, Deepak left home when he failed to get a government job. In the 10 years since, Deepak has worked in many cities as a construction labourer.
Deepak has seen many "accidents" in the construction sites he has worked for
“We learn of these jobs through friends who work in the cities. We take the next train to the city and within a week we are on the job. There is no dearth of construction work in a city that is expanding. So after the construction work in one building is over, we are either moved to another site by the construction company itself, or we just ask around for jobs.” he says.
While it is the search for a stable job that got Deepak to Bengaluru, cyclone Alia destroyed not just Raju Singh’s village in the Sundarbans, but also snatched away lucrative work as a tourist guide in the Sundarbans National Park.
“There was no hope after cyclone Aila swallowed our village in 2014. There was no job in the forest as the cyclone affected tourism too,” he says.
Raju had worked as a part-time guide for three years escorting tourists in the forests and taking them boating. It fetched him a minimum of Rs. 700 per day for six-eight month a year. Any other job in the village would not get him anything more than Rs. 300 per day. When the tourist season was over, he worked as a woodcutter, and construction labourer.
Now, 25-year old Raju has found work that would pay him as much as his tourist guide job did: plastering. Although it is the highest paid job on a construction site, and it took him some time to pick up the skill.
Left to Right(sitting): Sumith Kumar, Bibhisan Burman and Raju Singh
“We all start as helper, which is how we pick up skills. Most helpers are minors or under-20. Skills can be picked up in two to three years. As we move to a new construction site, we graduate to other jobs, where we can use the skills we had learnt,” Raju says.
Although the majority of workers are men including married men who have left their families behind, there are some like Kishanram, who was forced to move to Bengaluru with his family. Work as an agricultural labourer in Odisha was no longer enough to support his family as crops failed to due to shortage of water.
Kishanram and his family are among the 400 people living in three rows of sheds – made of asbestos sheets – behind the building which is under construction. He and others have often protested against irregular supply of food and water. But even though electricity supply is erratic, they don’t complain about it because they consider it safe – the wiring is of poor quality and many people, including children have often been electrocuted.
While the men and women wait for work to resume, Sumith is trying to avoid the debris of the wall that collapsed. “Those were my friends. Even if we got caught for smoking beedis, we would all get caught together. Now, I feel something is missing,” Sumith says.