In cold blood

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

Three trade union activists, employees of a sub-contractor for the Chamera Hydroelectric Project III, are murdered.


IT is a restful picture that the Chamba district in Himachal Pradesh presents with the mountainous terrain, pine forests rolling endlessly towards the lofty Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal ranges and the field grey waters of the Ravi lashing through the gorges.

The picture postcard serenity was torn apart on June 10 when three workers employed in the construction of the 231-megawatt Chamera Hydroelectric Project were murdered. The crime would have been dismissed as the outcome of inter-worker clashes had the sole witness to it, Pramod Sharma, who was also the target, not lodged a police complaint. The needle of suspicion immediately pointed to a reputed construction company contracted by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) for the execution of the project. The killed workers, one of whom was the district president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), had been demanding the implementation of labour laws, protesting against the unjust labour practices adopted by the company.

The workers reportedly employed by sub-contractors of the main construction company, Hindustan Construction Company Limited (HCC), were denied regular allowances such as double overtime and tribal area as well as tunnel allowances guaranteed under the State labour laws. The majority of the workers were employed on daily wages and denied weekly offs.

According to the police complaint, armed men waylaid the four CITU activists who were returning after a round of unsuccessful parleys with the officials of the NHPC and HCC. The sub-contractor of HCC, Karan Salaria, was present at the parleys. Pramod Sharma went back to the scene of crime late in the night but could not locate the bodies of his co-workers. He noticed blood splattered at the edge of the gorge. It was only the next morning that two bodies were spotted. The assailants had pushed the bodies into the river, flowing 150 metres below. The police recovered the bodies on the third day. The third body, that of a Nepali labourer Dhan Singh, was found downstream in the first week of July.

Based on Pramod Sharma's statement and corroboration of events leading to the murders, the Chamba police began their investigations. They found that it was on the evening of June 10 that a plan was hatched to "clear" Pramod Sharma, the more vocal among the workers. He had announced earlier that day that the workers would not resume work if their demands, including payment of wages that were in arrears, were not met. Pramod Sharma told the police that an HCC official, had threatened that if the workers did not return to work they should be prepared to face the consequences.

On June 17, ten persons were identified as allegedly involved in the murder. The same day, the Inspector-General Police (CID), I.D. Bhandari, told the media that the sub-contractor had masterminded the murder as "they used to fight for the rights of labourers working on the Chamera Hydroelectric Project Stage III". On June 26, Karan Salaria was arrested.

It is alleged that the accused were moving around freely even after the crime was committed. The day after the murder, one of the accused, H.S. Dhillon, deputy project controller of HCC, met the NHPC's chief project officer, K.K. Joshi, at his office to seek police protection. A letter issued by HCC indicating the presence of Dhillon at the NHPC office is in the possession of Frontline. Sources in the police said that a red alert had been issued for the arrest of four HCC employees and a sub-contractor. On July 19, three HCC personnel, including Dhillon, were arrested on charges of conspiracy.

Superintendent of Police Upendra Thakur told Frontline that the incident leading to the murder, the interrogation of the arrested persons and the investigations and developments subsequent to the crime provided strong circumstantial evidence against the arrested persons.

Meanwhile, work has come to a halt at Chamera III. On June 11 there was a huge public protest. Some heavy equipment belonging to HCC was burnt. The incident now is being used as a pretext by HCC to discontinue work. All HCC officers have fled the area. When Frontline visited the dam site, the workers were holding a demonstration, demanding the arrests of the culprits as well as the implementation of labour laws. No compensation has been announced for the families of the victims.

An HCC spokesperson said the company feared for the lives of its employees and that its men were not being allowed to work. The company has demanded that the entire area be declared a protected area. The police and the NHPC have rejected this demand.

The daily wage workers, hired by the sub-contractor, say they are not on strike and that no notice for strike had been given. Nor have they refused to work. "The fact is there is no one to get the work done," said Rasik Kumar Sahu, a migrant worker from Orissa.

It is ironical that neither the NHPC, the principal employer, nor HCC, and not even the State Labour Department has bothered to make an attempt to address the workers' grievances. K.K. Joshi, who sits in the secured NHPC office-cum-residential complex, said that it was the job of the labour officer to address the problem. He has not found it necessary to address the problems of the workmen.

He said the NHPC made history when it completed the 300-MW Chamera II power station in record time. He does not recall any labour problems during the commissioning of the previous project. The main contractor hired by the NHPC had at that point "screened" the workers carefully, weeding out any potentially undesirable elements. Informed sources said HCC had perhaps not conducted a similar screening process and in addition it had sub-contracted the work.

Ravinder Kumar, CITU State president, said that the screening was primarily done to take docile, compliant and mainly migrant workers who would work for less and, owing to their migrant status, would not demand their legitimate entitlements.

Joshi maintained that the labour officer in charge of Chamba had never given him any indication of trouble in the past months. Ironically, the police also held a similar view, putting the onus on the labour officer.

When Frontline asked Joshi about the responsibility of the NHPC to ensure that all workers employed, whether regular or contract, were not denied their entitlements, he replied it was a matter between HCC and them and that the NHPC could not get involved directly. He maintained that labour laws could only be implemented in the process of the project.

There are only five labour officers for the 12 districts in the State. It was learnt that the labour officer for Chamba was headquartered in Dharamasala and had no independent government vehicle assigned to him. The officer often used the vehicles of the company he was meant to investigate.

Meanwhile, the district police have been rounding up workers who they believe were involved in the destruction of HCC machines. "If they want to avoid arrests, they should go underground like the HCC officials. But if they hang around, holding demonstrations, we will have to do our karma," Upendra Thakur asserted. According to the police, NHPC officials and even HCC, work at the dam site had progressed at a good pace until the events of June 10. Police sources said HCC deliberately did not give in to the demands of the workers as that would have been tantamount to recognising the union, which was in a nascent stage of formation.

"If they acknowledged the demands, they felt the list of demands would go up every day," a senior police official said. He added that the entire episode was a "clash of monopolies between the management of the company and the leadership of the trade union".

The HCC project management, meanwhile, holds that it was in regular communication with the workers through the union representatives as is the norm in industry. The daily wage workers, on the other hand, argued that as the sub-contractors had employed them, the HCC Employees Union was not their forum. When Frontline through an e-mail asked HCC about its association with Salaria, it got a vague reply. The real issue was not entirely about granting entitlements to the workers.

The bigger challenge was to prevent the unionisation of workers. The fledgling union of Chamera III was ready to take off. In a few months' time, it would have got registered and the employer would have been forced to recognise it.

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