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Poor migrant and unorganized labourers’ human rights grossly violated in India

by S. P. Udayakumar, 10 May

print version of this article print version - 10 May 2020

Some 7,000 migrant labourers from distant Jharkhand, Bihar and other northern states have been working at the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant near the southern tip of India. The L&T, a big and powerful builder, has employed these unskilled workers as its contracted labourers. Some of them have been employed by other local sub-contractors also.

These labourers have been complaining for a long time that the contractors, sub-contractors and head-hunter agencies had been taking a huge cut from their wages as their own fee or commission. When the Corona curfew was announced two months ago, the construction work was stopped after the local population protested against it.

Instead of making arrangements for these migrant labourers to go home, they were forced to stay inside the Koodankulam nuclear power plant campus throwing all the IAEA-stipulated sterile zone restrictions to the air. They were forced to stay inside hot and clumsy corrugated iron-sheet sheds in a very cramped condition with little or no sanitary facilities. They were not given sufficient food or safe drinking water either. According to inside reports, these workers were given poor quality wheat flour and potatoes for days together.

There have been murmurs going on about all these issues for quite some time. But when the Koodankulam authorities tried to resume work in Units 3 & 4 without giving any due consideration to the workers’ safety and well-being by letting in outside workers to work along with them, these migrant laborers started panicking. They were afraid that Covid-19 virus could easily spread if outsiders could enter the worksite and mingle with them.

The local people, however, were afraid that these migrant laborers who were held inside the nuclear power plant premises against their will without work, or food or wages, could sneak into their communities and indulge in anti-social activities. In fact, some such intrusions did take place and the local police intervened and handled the situation.

The migrant labourers have been sick and tired of their subhuman existence and wanted to break free from their servitude. They did revolt against all these on May 4, 2020 but the Tirunelveli district administration intervened and asked them to sign up online for departure to their native villages. Some 3,431 people signed up and waited for their turn to go home.

When nothing happened for days together, the frustrated laborers revolted on May 9, 2020 and engaged in pelting stones on local police and other officials. Two police officers were hurt and admitted to the local hospital. The KKNPP administration, the contracting L&T company administration, subcontractors, district administration, and the state and central governments want the laborers to stay put here in order to resume the construction of the nuclear power plants once the Corona curfew is over.

This holding of the workers against their free will and consent makes these nuclear worksites forced labor camps. Instead of providing them decent wages, better living facilities and safe work environment, the authorities are forcing them not to go home.

The migrant workers’ revolt at Koodankulam gives rise to a few important and pertinent questions. If 7,000 young and able-bodied men revolt in unison inside a nuclear power plant campus, can a few hundred CRPF officers who safeguard the largest and substandard nuclear power plants keep things safe and secure? The neighboring villagers are deeply worried about their safety and security.

The local officials are saying privately that these workers have been damaging equipment and stealing components at the worksites out of anger and frustration. Two police officers have been hurt in the May 9th scuffle and admitted to local hospital. Naturally, the local police must have filed a few cases on some of these workers and their leaders.

Since all these incidents take place inside the nuclear plant premises without any access even to the press, only the official version is being heard and reported to the outside world. Moreover, the local police and the revenue officials are trying to pacify the workers, and cover up all the pertinent issues. They try to please the state and central governments, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) and the Department of Atomic Energy for obvious reasons. One cannot be sure if most of these officials would be impartial and do justice to the migrant and unorganized laborers.

In the light of the above situation, the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) has demanded setting up a ‘people’s safety committee’ to safeguard the interests of the migrant laborers who are languishing in a distant land without the knowledge of the local language (Tamil) and English and without any local friends or a support system. We have also requested the Collector and the Superintendent of Police to let a team of our lawyers meet and talk to these workers.

The plight of the migrant workers and the unorganized laborers is so pathetic and heart-wrenching all over India. They were left high and dry by the state and the central governments and most of these workers had to walk hundreds of kilometers to go back to their villages. When they were on their way, the governments blocked state borders and stranded them right on the highways. Many workers and their family members died on the way without food and water. Some of them were run over by trucks and trains when they were resting or sleeping on their way home.

India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, has suddenly woken up to the plight of the migrant workers and written a letter to the chief minister of West Bengal on May 9, 2020. He has written:

“Migrants from West Bengal are also eager to reach home. Central govt is facilitating but we are not getting expected support from W.B. State Government, which is not allowing the trains to reach W.B. This is injustice with W.B. migrant laborers. This will create further hardship for them.”

Even as he is worried about the migrant workers’ hardships, his own party’s chief minister in Karnataka, Yediyurappa, has stopped trains and buses from ferrying the migrant workers to their home states because of the lobbying of powerful construction companies.

To put things tersely, the migrant laborers and unorganized workers all over India are being callously neglected, systematically harassed, and held against their free will and consent. This is indeed a gross violation of these poor workers’ fundamental human rights. The Indian civil society and the international community should take note of this pathetic inhuman situation in India and come to the rescue of the poor migrant laborers and unorganized workers.

S. P. Udayakumaran, Ph.D.
Coordinator: People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy
President: Green Tamilnadu Party

May 9, 2020