40-year-old Budamma routinely left her key under the mat in front of her home before she left for work. Like several women in the village, Budamma was working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. She was hoping to repay a farming loan that the family had taken.
But last week, Budamma’s son, 21-year-old Chenna Kesavulu noticed that she did not leave her key in the usual spot. He went in search of his mother, only to discover the tragic accident that has left his entire village in shock.
Budamma was among the 10 women MNREGA workers who were killed in a minor landslide on April 10 in Telangana’s Thileru village in the Marikal mandal. Chenna said he only found out about her death after he went to find his mother for the key.
“That morning was the last time I saw her,” said Chenna, who works as a farmer. "I don't know how we will survive without her. She used to manage everything single-handedly from cooking to finance," he said.
Five days after the tragedy, the village of Thileru is still reeling from the fatal landslide and is demanding answers from authorities. The women were resting in the shade of a mud mound, which collapsed and killed them at the worksite.
Activists are now alleging that the accident could have been avoided if proper measures for shade had been provided to the workers.
"The MGNREGA workers chose a portion of the hill carved by the JCB as a place for rest. They had been used this place as a resting place for months. But it had rained the day before the tragedy, which made the hillside weak," said Prashant, a volunteer with NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a national platform of workers' collectives and trade unions.
“The accident could have been avoided if these women were resting under proper shade,” he added.
Apart from providing work, MGNREGA field assistants are also supposed to provide a place with shade for the workers. Most times, a plastic sheet is used for shade. However, at Thileru, no such plastic sheets were provided, Prashant pointed out.
In a press statement, NREGA Sangharsha Morcha stated that multiple civil society groups have been demanding for many years that workers be provided cloth tents, and not plastic sheets.
“Plastic sheets do not serve the purpose and instead intensify the heat, due to which workers are reluctant to use them in the summer. Also notable that even the plastic sheets are not provided in all the work sites leaving the workers in a state of great plight. The MGNREGA workers are made to work without basic facilities and security measures which is a blatant violation of the act and human rights of workers,” the statement read.
According to Prashant, the MGNREGA field assistant who was in charge of the worksite has not returned to the village after the incident. "He is afraid that he will get beaten by the villagers for not providing shade to the MGNREGA workers," he said.
The National Human Rights Commission also took suo moto cognizance of the deaths and issued a notice to the Telangana Chief Secretary to submit a detailed report within four weeks. The Commission reportedly said that if the contents of news reports, if true, raised a serious issue of violation of rights. The negligence of the contractor and the department concerned cannot be ruled out, the commission said.
After the landslide, the worksite was visited by politician DK Aruna and the district collectors of Narayanpet and Mahbubnagar. As immediate compensation, the state government gave Rs 5000 in cash and Rs 50,000 cheque.
On Saturday, Narayanpet district collector S Venkat Rao announced ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh, land, double bedroom houses, employment and education to the children of each of the 10 workers who were killed.
Earlier on Saturday, some relatives of the deceased blocked the Mahbubnagar-Raichur highway with the support of All India Trade Union Congress and demanded Rs 25 lakh, three acres of land, double bedroom houses, jobs and residential education to the children of the workers.
"The officials want to help but don't want to give assurances. They even gave informal assurance that the education of the children of the 10 women would be taken care of,” Prashant said.