Chinese workers arrive to help build stations on Poonamallee High Road. Sunitha Sekar reports from Nehru Park

The Metro Rail site at Nehru Park is a mini island in itself on the arterial Poonamallee High Road. Giant metal cast structures reveal very little about the movement of the population enclosed within them — rather, under them.  The site now has new guests: the Chinese.

Around 15 workers from China, who are experts in handling Tunnel Boring Machines (TBM), are currently engaged in the construction of three underground stations on the road  — Nehru Park, Pachaiyappa's College and Kilpauk.

 At Nehru Park, several feet below the ground, a couple of crisscrossing mini bridges overshadow the activities. In one corner of the cavernous tunnel, Chinese workers seated in between massive concentric circles are busy assembling the parts of the two TBMs. With the ability to drill through most hard surfaces, the TBMs tunnel passages connecting underground stations. Of the 11 TBMs ordered for the city, two will be employed here.

The Chinese are here as a part of the MoU signed between Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) and joint venture partners, Larsen & Toubro (L&T) India and China-based Shanghai Urban Construction Group (SUCG), in December 2010.

The deal comprised outsourcing the TBMs along with the workforce trained to operate them, a senior official of L&T told The Hindu. “While some of them are technicians and are presently involved in assembling the machines, a few holding the licenses to operate them are yet to arrive. We have been informed that they have passed some exams in different categories in China that makes them qualified to handle these TBMs,” he added.

 The ongoing third phase of Metro Rail construction in Delhi had earlier seen the Chinese operating the TBMs. An official of L&T said that some of the Indian workers received extensive training from the Chinese. Had it not been for the limited number trained, Indian workers' potential could have been realised for this as well, he said.

 Two interpreters fluent in English, Chinese and Hindi have been roped to bridge the problems of communication. On the condition of anonymity, the interpreter, a soft-spoken man, said, “I'm not a professional. I picked up Chinese as I was working for a Chinese firm for a couple of years. Learning English was possible through lots of help from my friends.”

According to some officials of L&T, the Chinese workers, who are here on employment visas, will be shuttling back and forth every six months between India and China.

This is because the tunnelling is not continuous process as an idle time of two to three months is necessary for the freshly dug tunnel to stabilize.

 The pay scales of these workers are unknown as neither the contractor nor the worker was willing to divulge any details.

A worker from northeast China, who communicated in broken English, also declined to talk about his work, wages, and accommodation. He was content to state in a diplomatic tone: “Chennai is beautiful city.”

Workers from Russia and Germany have also arrived here for handling the same machine though their numbers are far lesser when compared to the Chinese.

While the Germans are managing without much difficulty when it comes to language, the Russians have an interpreter with a fair knowledge of Hindi, English and Russian. Officials professed ignorance when asked about the accommodation and qualification of these workers.

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