The migrant labourers were working on Phase 2 of the Rs 644 crore construction project of the IIT Hyderabad campus located at Sangareddy, Telangana.

Why migrant labourers at IIT Hyderabad campus just want to go back home
news Labour Friday, May 15, 2020 - 15:46
Written by  Malini Subramaniam Padmaja Shaw

“Hum paison ka chakkar mein nahin hai. Ghar jane ka chakkar mein hai,” said Mangal Yadav from Bihar. (We are not after money. We want to go back home). The sentiment was echoed by the hundreds of other labourers gathered under the pandal inside the IIT Hyderabad labour camp in Kandi village in Telangana’s Sangareddy district, when TNM met them in early May. 

Work was resumed by L&T management at phase 2 of the IIT Hyderabad campus from May 4, yet from about 600 labourers left in the camp, only a handful re-joined. The rest, like Mangal, had defied. The anger at not getting transport to their homes and anguish at their inability to be closer home to their family was palpable.

This was two days after agitated workers clashed with the L&T management at the labour camp at Phase 2 of the Rs 644 crore construction project of IIT Hyderabad campus located at Kandi. The agitation had turned violent, leaving four persons, including a policeman, an L&T HR official and two workers, injured. 

“It is true the people were very agitated and got rough with the L&T personnel, but the police who were called in entered the camp and swung lathis chasing the labourers,” said Yadav. Sixty-year-old Surinder Saha, a contractor from Bihar, was badly injured in the lathi charge. This angered the workers further who clashed with the police. A larger police force had to be called in. Sangareddy MLA and the Superintendent of Police of Sangareddy had to intervene in the matter. 

The situation came under control after the L&T management in consultation with the local administration assured the labour of their wages. “The next day (30 April) some of the contractors’ dues were cleared until March, who in turn either made payments to the labourers or promised to put it into their account,” informed a supervisor who did not want to be named. “But the mood was to leave for home, not stay back through an indefinite lockdown,” he added.

Inside the labour camp

Perhaps sensing this, the Telangana government in coordination with the Jharkhand government and the Railways arranged a special train to quietly ‘sneak’ all the labourers from Jharkhand back home. The first ‘Shramik train’ started off from Telangana. The entire labour pool from Jharkhand was bundled into the train without giving them much time to think. Two labourers unfortunately were left behind.

“We were asleep when the others left, no one informed us”, said a forlorn migrant from Jharkhand, sitting in a corner.

“We were woken up at 11 in the night and asked to pack our things to reach the gate from where we were taken by buses to the Lingampally railway station,” shared Salim Ansari over phone, relieved to have reached Jamtara in Jharkhand. When asked about the men left behind, Ansari responded, “Ghar vapas jane ki ichha itni thi ki jab bulaya gaya, kisi ne dai-baye na dekha. Bus apna bag uthaye aur chal diye” (The desire to go back home was so strong that no one looked left or right. We just picked up our bags and left).

The construction site was once brimming with activity until the lockdown on March 24 brought everything to a standstill. 

Over 3,000 labourers had poured in from various districts of Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand to offer their labour – skilled and unskilled – to develop the 576-acre IIT Campus at Kandi. Construction of the first phase of the campus, bagged by L&T and Sharpoorjee & Pallonji Pvt Ltd, is nearing completion after nine years. The second phase under L&T had begun a year back.

Like many others, Yadav too had come five months back from Motihari district, Bihar, hoping to return to his village in May with some Rs 80,000 earnings in his pocket to invest in his small farm and fulfil other needs at home before he sets off again for construction work after a gap of two months or so. The lockdown of the last 50 days left him poorer by over Rs 30,000.

Most workers earn between Rs 12,000 and Rs 25,000, depending on the work assigned by their respective contractors. Supervisors and the technical staff are directly on the payroll of Larsen & Tubro. Payments to the non-technical labour are made through the contractors who bring them from various states. In this tiered system of resource distribution, when the government of India pays L&T, L&T pays the contractor, who in turn pays the labourers. The wages trickle down to the labourers only around the second or third week of the month, ensuring that several weeks of wages remain with the contractors at any given time, and the labourers are rendered bonded to the contractors.

Living under tin roofs in the hot summer months 

What was the anger about?

The clampdown following stoppage of work since March 24 worsened the situation, with the Central and state governments asking reluctant employers and contractors to pay for the lockdown time when no work was allowed. In the case of IIT-H, most contractors paid wages only till March 21.

At the camp, the workers were left to bake in the summer heat under the tin roof shelters, 15 to 20 to a room, without a fan. “Food was not an issue for us in the labour camp. The company had instructed regular supply of ration, but we need our wages as our entire family back home depend on our salary to survive,” said Dilip Jana, who had arrived eight months ago from East Midnapore in West Bengal.

Succumbing to pressures from CREDA (Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India) and TREDA (Telangana Real Estate Developers Association), on May 3, the Telangana government gave the green signal for construction work to resume. This was days before the official lockdown was to be lifted on May 7.

The workers did not see the government’s sudden relaxation for construction work as a boon, after being pincered for over a month under the lockdown without wages. It was an added outrage when the L&T honchos arrived to get the work restarted without settling pending wages.

The workers claimed that they had been here for over five months and had been paid up only until March 21, the day before the Janata Curfew on March 22. Subhash Kumar (name changed), a supervisor from Bihar, said, “One reason we take on the hardship of coming here is to send survival money back home to our families.” With wages choked, worsening living conditions and no work, many of them made up their mind to cut their losses and return home, with or without back wages.

A reliable source from L&T informed, “The entire country has suffered due to COVID-19 lockdown. So have we. Even then the management was not in favour of overlooking the wage issue.”

“There is a system in place,” he explained. “The timekeeper was asked to regularly get the workers to punch time to record their presence. However, by late April after the third lockdown, misinformation that the company will not pay for the lockdown period spread like wildfire. The L&T staff who went to negotiate the start of work came under attack because of the misinformed anger, leading to injuries,” he said.

With the Ministry of Home Affairs’ April 29 order allowing migrant workers to return to their homes, hopes of return soared among the labourers. 

Labourers inside the camp at the IIT Hyderabad construction site.

As agitations broke out across Telangana, at Hyderabad, Khammam and Peddapalli, the Chief Minister announced that daily 40 trains would run from various stations in the state. Workers were asked to register at the nearest police stations for movement passes. Workers in thousands, along with their families, began thronging the local police stations for passes which sometimes would take four to six hours of waiting. Many like Praseed Niraj, from Bemetara district in Chhattisgarh, had to return empty-handed as the police had completed their quota of 250 passes for the day. This meant lining up again the next day with his entire family at the police station.

The labourers at the L&T camp were initially denied passes when they reached their local thana at Kandi. “We will take the list of workers from the L&T time office,” they were informed at the thana. The company was asking the workers to stay back to work. However, seeing the determination of the workers to return home, the police reached the camp on May 7 and issued them passes.

As of May 13, the labour camp is still left with over 600 labourers. “About 200 labourers from UP, Bihar and Chhattisgarh and most from Jharkhand have managed to leave by the Shramik trains,” said Dilip Jana, but none of the 500 labourers from West Bengal like him could leave.

With no trains plying, Jana and his group of 30 men were negotiating for a bus to take them all the way to East Midnapore – some 1,400 kms away. This would cost Rs 90 per km (Rs 45 to and fro). In addition, the driver’s fee, food and the road taxes will also have to be borne by the workers, he explained. “I have heard that screening is done at the local thana and if we don’t have symptoms, we are allowed to go home.” Since they were all from one camp, he was confident they won’t be put under quarantine when they reach their borders. Even if quarantined, he was eager to be closer home.

Out of the total 3,000 workforce in both L&T and Shapoorji Pallonji, 1,600 are in the L&T camp, of which 1,000 labourers from UP, Bihar and Jharkhand have left. From the 600 workers left, only 50% have joined work, informed the source from L&T. “We are trying our best to ask the workers to join until their trains begin. While some have joined, some are still adamant.” The management has not stopped anyone from leaving for home, in fact it has facilitated in obtaining movement passes for the workers.

Granted in March 2019, the IIT campus was proposed to have been completed in 36 months which will now be delayed for various reasons. “If they had let us return home before the lockdown, we could have spent the lockdown period at home and returned now when work is opening up,” said Jana. “Ab dono ko bhugatna pad raha hai,” he sighed. (Now both, the company and the workers, have to suffer).

Salim Ansari, who had reached his home in Jharkhand, was unsure of returning to work. “Halat bahut buri thi hum logon ki, pariwar ko mil bhi payenge ki nahin aisa dar baith gaya tha” (Our situation was very bad, we were scared that we may not be able to meet our family), said Ansari. “Dekhten hain, jab sab shant ho jayega to sochenge, varna yahin kuchh dhundenge, kaam to karna hi hai,” he added (Let’s see, I’ll think (of coming to Hyderabad) once everything quietens, otherwise I’ll look for something here only. After all one has to work).

Padmaja Shaw is a retired professor of Journalism from Osmania University and Malini Subramaniam is an independent journalist.

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