“We Did It for Our Brothers Who Were Trapped” - Uttarkashi Rescue Miners
Munna Qureshi, Monu Kumar, Feroze Qureshi, Naseem Mallik, Nasir Khan, Jatin, Devender Kumar, Saurabh, Wakeel Hassan, Irshad Ansari, Rashid Ansari, and Ankur are the 12 rescue miners who provided a breath of fresh air to the 41 workers trapped for 17 days under the rubbles of the collapsed Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi. After the repeated failure of the auger machine to reach the trapped workers, a team of 12 workers were called to finish the job of rescuing. After 26 hours of tireless work, the team of rescue miners successfully finished their operation. On December 15th, the CPI(ML) Liberation organised a felicitation ceremony for the rescue miners at its Central Office in Delhi.
On November 12th, 2023, a sudden rockfall sealed a part of the under-construction Silkyara tunnel resulting in the entrapment of the 41 construction workers. It is appropriate to state that workers, like the 41 trapped construction workers as well as the 12 rescue miners, are the ones who shoulder the burden of the disastrous model of “development” which has resulted in the destruction of the fragile ecology and geology of the Himalayas.
Warnings by Scientists
The Silkyara tunnel is part of the ambitious Char Dham National Highway project in Uttarakhand that the double engine government of BJP (both at the Centre and at Uttarakhand) are pursuing, with utter disregard to several warnings of the scientists about the impending environmental disaster. In 2020, a high-powered committee chaired by prominent environmental scientist Ravi Chopra reported that engineers have failed to analyse the local geology and hydrology at several construction sites of the Char Dham project, which has led to landslides and environmental disasters. Despite this, construction of broad pavements was cleared by the Supreme Court when the Indian Military was brought in to argue in favour of the construction of the wide pavements. Ravi Chopra was forced to resign from this committee. It is important to note that despite the knowledge of Silkyara falling in a geologically brittle shear zone, no escape route was provided for the workers.
Workers Always Made to Pay
It is not the first time that workers are being made to pay the cost of reckless construction in the Himalayas. In 2021, a glacial outburst killed more than 141 workers at the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydel Power Project. Recently, the subsidence of Joshimath town, which is roughly 190 kms away from the Silkyara tunnel, had drawn the attention of the world where several hundred houses were subsided and people were forced to be displaced from their homes. Such is the cost of unabated construction in the fragile Himalayan geology, which is being undertaken only to satiate the megalomaniac Prime Minister of India.
Helplessness Expressed by Rescue Miners
The team of the 12 rescue miners consisted of workers from Delhi’s Khazoori and UP’s Bulandshahr and Kashganj. Like the rest of the country, these workers were also watching the attempts to rescue the 41 trapped workers. Monu Kumar, one of the team members told us that while watching the helplessness of fellow workers who were trapped, they were feeling restless for not being able to do anything as they were confident that if given the job, their team can successfully rescue the trapped workers. He told us that they feel extremely fortunate for being recruited for the job and for being able to rescue the trapped workers. Nasir Khan, another team member of the rescue miners, told us that they could feel the helplessness of the trapped workers as they themselves work in deep trenches and are aware that such accidents can happen to anyone of them and at any time.
‘Media Termed Us as Rat Miners’
The workers told us that while the media has termed them as ‘rat miners’, they describe their jobs as ‘manual gig pushing’. Their job is to lay water or sewer pipelines at 15 to 35 feet underground. While the nature of their job appears similar to that of the ‘rat miners’, their occupation does not fall under the banned category of work. While machines are involved in horizontal digging for laying pipelines, an extensive amount of manual work is also needed for the completion of the work. The description of their job defines their work to be of hazardous nature.
Wages Less Than Minimum Wages
The workers who hail from Bulandshahar told us that most of those who are engaged in this kind of work come from families who are landless or are small farmers. Agrarian crisis in India’s countryside is forcing majority of the youth to move out from farming sector and adopt non-farm manual labour. The rescue miners told us that they chose this difficult job because other construction workers get Rs. 300 to Rs. 400 per day, while they earn Rs. 500 to Rs. 600 per day. On an average, they manage to earn around Rs. 15,000 per month. It is to be noted that such rates of wages are lesser than the stipulated minimum wages. The lowest minimum wage in Delhi is Rs. 17,494 per month. It is indeed a matter of great shame that workers who build critical infrastructure in different parts of the country and undertaken great risk to their lives, which includes the possibility of accidents and physical injury are paid such paltry amounts. We were also informed that they are denied social security benefits such as ESI or PF. It is only when they work in massive development projects that the employer contributes to their PF.
‘Accidents & Deaths are Common’
They have been involved in this work without any formal training from any employer and they had to start doing this job when they were as young as 16 years old to meet the economic needs of their families. They are aware of several accidents that have either injured or killed workers engaged in manual gig pushing. They mentioned two accidents that took the lives of workers involved in laying pipelines in Delhi’s Begumpura, as well as UP’s Etah. Despite the risk involved in the job and the meagre level of wages, they continue with this job as no other avenues of employment are available for them.
The working conditions of the rescue miners reflect the dismal situation of working-class rights of millions of informal workers across the country. Workers from Delhi to UP and Uttarakhand are being forced to work without any guarantee of dignified wages or other legal rights.
Inspiration Derived from Rescue Miners
Everyone present at the felicitation ceremony were inspired by the clear display of the consciousness of working-class by the rescue miners. Munna Qureshi, a member of the rescue miners team mentioned the difficulty they face in securing a future for their children, despite working hard for nine to ten hours every day, and that the dreams of their children are quashed since education is being privatised and thus, become unaffordable for families like his.
Nasir Khan raised a very important question as to why projects under the government are being handed over to private companies. Wakeel Hassan, the team leader of the rescue miners, said that it is not religion or caste of the trapped workers that inspired them to go for the rescue work, but the suffering of fellow workers that led them to take up the assignment. Till date, the rescue workers have not been paid by the Navyug company. Recently, Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Dhami offered Rs. 50,000 as a reward for each worker. But, the workers have refused to encash the cheque, as they are very clear on their demand for permanent jobs and sufficient financial assistance to move away from this hazardous job.
AICCTU demands that the 12 rescue miners are provided with regular government jobs, that a minimum of Rs. 10 lakhs be given to them as reward for rescuing the 41 trapped workers as they have provided a great service to the nation, and that an official recognition of their bravery be made by the Union Government. We also demand that the disastrous Char Dham National Highway Project be scrapped until a proper Environmental Impact Assessment of the region is carried out, before proceeding with any further construction. The people of the country shall no longer bear the cost of disastrous projects, which only acts as a photo-op for the Prime Minister.