New Delhi: On July 5 this year, a six-year-old boy, Vishal, died on the worksite of an under-construction government housing colony in Ramapuram in Chennai.
- Children are not allowed on worksites, but many flout the rules
- Open areas of higher floors are meant to be protected by safety nets
- Metro rail sites appear to maintain much better safety standards
In photographs taken immediately after his death, he can be seen crumpled up on the earth, his legs broken and covered in blood, and deep injuries to his head, arms and face. His family, who work on the site, crouch over him in anguish.
The project belongs to the Tamil Nadu Housing Board (TNHB); the contractors are a private company, Sri Venkatachalapathy and Company.
The contractors told us the child had been taken to the fourth floor by his father, and he fell from an uncovered area. Other eyewitnesses say that a heavily-loaded pulley which was being used to lift material up the building fell on the child from the fourth floor.
Either explanation raises serious questions of safety violations - children are not allowed on worksites. Open areas of higher floors are meant to be protected by safety nets. Equipment, like the pulley that purportedly caused the death, are meant to be regularly checked for load-bearing capacity.
This accident, part of NDTV's investigation into deaths at construction site, highlights how even state-run projects can be death traps, not just for the workers but also for their families. (See Part I of the investigation here)
The same lack of oversight we had found on private worksites seem to afflict even government commissioned projects.
Even though the contractor was named in the FIR and charged with death due to negligence, no arrests were made.
According to the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996, being the principal employer, the TNHB should have conducted an inquiry into the accident. The law also says that any site that has more than 10 women workers must have a creche for children on site.
When NDTV contacted the TNHB, the Managing Director was not aware of any such incident. Instead, the Board handed us glossy photographs of the site with safety nets on building, lift shafts covered and a functional creche.
When we tried to contact the contractor, Sri Venkatachalapathy and Company, the address led us to an apartment in Chennai. The occupant told us that it was not an office. We were directed to another house in the same building, which was shut.
On the day we visited the site, there was clear evidence that despite the accident, safety measures were ignored. Safety nets were rolled and kept in a corner, tugged on by stray dogs. The same building from where the accident happened had no hand railings.
A similar pulley system to the one that allegedly caused the accident was in use, with frayed wires and its controls in poor shape. And families with children could still be seen staying inside the buildings.
According to the TNHB, there are an estimated 30 children on site.
A first-of-its-kind attempt by NDTV to gather country-wide data on deaths and injuries at construction sites through RTI applications and through police sources shows that between 2013 and 2016, approximately 1,092 workers died and 377 were injured.
We were not given separate data on deaths at government projects.
But we did receive RTI replies on deaths in Metro construction sites. This shows that 46 deaths, eight injuries and 55 accidents happened between 2013 and 2016 in Metro construction sites in 7 cities.
Compared to most worksites in India, Metro sites appear to maintain much better safety standards. Workers can be seen wearing boots, safety belts, helmets and jackets while working.
Yet, these sites too can turn fatal.
On July 1st, Amarendra Ram, a worker from Bihar was crushed under a falling iron beam, while working underground at the Chennai Central Metro construction site.
The contractor for the stretch of the metro where the death took place is AFCONS Infrastructure. However, police action was only against the site supervisor, who was arrested on charges of death due to negligence. He is out on bail.
Chennai Metro Rail Limited did not respond to NDTV's queries on the inquiry conducted in the accident and what action was taken against the contractor.
"In mega construction projects like the Metro, you find that there are multiple contractors. Apart from that there are contractors who are concerned with the heavy equipment. They come with their own machinery and this complicates matters. If any mishap happens because of the fault of the other contractors or because of absence of safety officer, the smaller ones who come for a very short time are penalised. They are forced to pay for the compensation and are blamed for the mishap," says R Madhu Sudan, activist and researcher on the construction industry.