It is the hope of a better future that brought them here, and that alone may ensure they carry on with their work as though nothing happened. For the 500 migrant workers who live in temporary housing clusters in Vanagram and Thiruverkadu on the outskirts of the city, the death of Hanif Ali (21) in the metro rail crane boom accident on Wednesday, is just one more reminder of the everyday gamble called life.

“Aise toh hota rehta hain... Yahan toh phir bhi kum hota hain (These incidents keep happening, in fact, they do not occur so frequently here),” said Dhiren Panj, an attaché operator from Balingir in Odisha, who lives in one such colony.

Most of them said they did not know the deceased Hanif Ali or the six others who were injured. “We are hired by contractors who then engage sub-contractors. And we are here only for a few months. Supervisors and operators may stay till the work gets over,” said Ajay Singh, a labourer from Bihar.

“They provide us cots, mattresses and north Indian food. Five of us share a room. But there is mosquito menace and the wages, though promised on the 10 of every month, come late,” he said.

Hanif was brought here by one such contractor for ‘fitting’ and ‘gauge lowering’ works. He had earlier worked in Gumidipoondi, Salem, Coimbatore and Hyderabad. Nearly 20 members of his extended family, mostly fitters and movers, work in the city at different CMRL sites.

“All of us are related in some way and our families live in Raiganj. They are in a very poor state, so they encourage us to go work in faraway places. Once in 20 days, a contractor comes and hires people for work. In Chennai, we are paid up to Rs. 3,000 a month. In Kolkata or Guwahati, we earn that much only after six months’ work,” said his co-worker A.K. Mahumuddin, who escaped Wednesday’s accident by a hair’s breadth.

On Thursday afternoon, Mahumuddin, and some other labourers from West Bengal who knew Hanif, were at KMC Hospital to claim his body. Hanif, who studied only up to class-II began working when he was barely eight-years-old, his cousin said. “His brother is also a steel fitter but he does not work now. Hanif’s parents will be devastated by the news,” he said.

The lanes that branch out from the highway here are dotted with workers’ colonies, managed by companies associated with CMRL. One such facility set up L&T has a big board with a cartoon that says, “Your safety needs you.” Outside every room are rows of boots and helmets, and strings on which safety jackets are hung.

“They impose a fine of Rs. 100 if you don’t have either of these,” says a worker. The names of the supervisors, drivers and operators are clearly listed but there is no information on the number of labourers.

The labourers are the lowest in the hierarchy after supervisors, loader operators, attaché operators, technicians, managers and drivers. But they are the ones, company officials have the least knowledge about.

In most colonies, labourers hail from Bihar and eastern parts of West Bengal. Every cluster has a unique character based on its composition. For instance, Soma, the infrastructure company, hires most of its workers from Madhya Pradesh, and many of them have been working for over 5 years.

“At first, 900 of us came, but now there are just around 400. We are asked to leave as soon as work nears completion,” a labourer said. They are paid anything between Rs. 4,000 and Rs. 11,000. “The pay is usually delayed by a month or two, but recently they cleared the backlog, at least for the operators.”

“It is a struggle. Sometimes, the contractor usurps our money but we have nobody to complain to. At least, we get something at the end of two months, and it is always better than daily wages,” says a loader from Bihar.

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