The difficult lives of migrant workers in Andhra Pradesh’s Anakapalli district

With industrial disasters being an all-too-frequent occurrence, Harish Gilai finds delves deeper into why safety measures, proper training, and better wages are much needed changes for the migrant workers at the Parawada Pharma City in Anakapalli district of Andhra Pradesh

Updated - February 08, 2024 03:57 pm IST

Published - October 27, 2023 07:51 am IST - VISAKHAPATNAM

Workers from Odisha and West Bengal at their temporary living blocks at Jawaharlal Nehru Pharma City at Parawada in Anakapalli district.

Workers from Odisha and West Bengal at their temporary living blocks at Jawaharlal Nehru Pharma City at Parawada in Anakapalli district. | Photo Credit: V Raju

An hour before dawn breaks, Maharana, 40, rushes to a messy corner of his one-room rented accommodation. He takes out a blunt knife and starts chopping vegetables. Prodding his two roommates who are fast asleep, he yells, “Wake up. It is almost 5. The queue at the tube well will only get longer.”

It is Maharana’s turn to cook today. His two roommates, weary-eyed from the disturbed sleep the night before, because of the mosquitoes, enquire about lunch. “I am making rice and dalma (a dish of lentils and vegetables in Odisha). I cannot manage with upma every day. We need something more wholesome and filling to get through the day,” replies Maharana.

As anticipated, there is a long queue at the tube well outside their building in Jawaharlal Nehru Pharma City (JNPC) at Parawada in Anakapalli district bordering Visakhapatnam city of Andhra Pradesh. Some are seen bathing and others brushing their teeth, awaiting their turn to fill buckets.

“Not all rooms have water taps. They have toilets, though. The rooms with all such facilities come at a higher rent,” he says while packing lunch in two big steel boxes. Around 10 people share a tiny room and pay ₹3,500 as monthly rent. A bigger room, with water facilities is out of question, as it comes at ₹5,000 a month, which would mean shelling out ₹500 per head.

By 5.30 a.m., the by-lanes dotted with box like houses near the entrance of JNPC are caught in a whir of activity. Hundreds of migrant workers are seen rushing to duty that begins at 6.30 a.m. Maharana and his roommates are among the nearly 120 workers hailing from Odisha who live in a 20-room dilapidated housing complex at Parawada.

As the workers gather in the street, the labour sub-contractor arrives on his two-wheeler with an autorickshaw trailing behind him. Driven by his call, the workers hurry to board.

Rohit and Kailash Kumar (names changed on request), between 25 and 30 years, from Ganjam district of Odisha, quickly get into backseat. They mumble a quick prayer invoking the grace of Tara Tarini, the presiding deity of a famous Hindu shrine in their village, to protect them on duty.

“Workers are happy to be sending home their earnings. But we do not feel safe at work, given the recurrent accidents at many units of Parawada Pharma City,” reveals Rohit, as Kailash nudges him not to speak further.

“Every job comes with some risk. Food does not land on the plate on its own,” chips in Kailash,26, as the autorickshaw proceeds to the job site.

Fraught with risks

Fatal industrial accidents in the pharmaceutical units in the JNPC and Special Economic Zone (SEZ) are not uncommon. At least half a dozen industrial accidents have been reported from the Pharma City this year so far. In August, two people died while three more suffered grievous injuries as a belt track fell on them from a height of about 15 metres. Prior to that, six workers died in a reactor blast at a pharma unit in the Atchutapuram SEZ in June.

Set up in 2005, the JNPC is spread over 2,200 acres in Parawada mandal, about 35 km from Visakhapatnam city. JNPC houses a number of multinational pharma and drug manufacturing companies. The SEZ in Atchutapuram is also a hub for pharma and other industrial setups. Hundreds of locals and non-locals are dependent on these units for their livelihood. However, recurrent accidents here pose a risk to lives of these unskilled or semi-skilled workers.

“I started working here as a labourer four years ago. I had a close shave with death once. I have also seen one of my friends dying in a fire accident in 2021,” says Rohit.

At a State-level seminar on ‘Industrial accidents and deaths’ organised in May this year, speakers had blamed the spurt in mishaps on the indifference and negligence of the government and the management board members in taking preventive measures.

The lack of adherence to safety guidelines has resulted in the death of 120 workers in 119 accidents in combined Visakhapatnam district during the last five years, they pointed out. In 2022 alone, 20 people had died and 18 crippled due to industrial accidents. The management provided compensation to victims after an accident, but were not giving priority to prevention of accidents, they alleged.

Up to 40 workers had died and 152 injured in the last 10 years in the Pharma City at Parawada, according to data presented at the seminar. Members of various workers’ unions have alleged lack of basic safety measures at the units and non-conduct of regular safety audits.

When the Department for Factories was contacted by The Hindu to comment on the safety audit, they did not respond.

Workers say that some pharma units engage them in jobs which require trained people. Lack of training and skill in handling dangerous effluents and chemicals, while working near reactors, and cleaning chemical units make them vulnerable to accidents, they share.

In a majority of industrial accidents, workers die of burn injuries caused by blasts or spilling of chemicals. Many workers say they are not given proper safety gear.

“Many accidents occurred due to wrong handling of chemicals. We need gloves, helmets, suits and shoes, depending on the nature of the work. Sometimes, we lack proper safety gear,” says Adinarayana, a migrant worker from Narasannapeta mandal in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh.

M. Devi from Chodavaram in Anakapalli district was in an advanced stage of pregnancy when she lost her husband, M. Venkat Rao, a contract worker, to an industrial accident in the JNPC in December 2022.

“That day, when my husband did not return home after his shift, I thought he must be working overtime. Later, our relatives came to know about his death from media reports. My family did not inform me about it until the next morning. The factory management promised compensation and a job to a family member. But no amount of compensation or assurance could bring my dead husband back,” she says in a quavering voice.

Meagre salary

Hundreds of workers hailing from Khurda, Ganjam, Rayagada, Cuttack, and Nabarangpur districts of Odisha, and many parts of West Bengal and Chhattisgarh, are engaged by companies in JNPC, apart from those belonging to Srikakulam, East Godavari, Vizianagaram, Anakapalli, and Visakhapatnam districts of Andhra Pradesh. A majority of them are under 35 years old. Women form a small percentage of these workers, and in most cases, they migrate along with their husbands.

A worker typically earns ₹10,000 to ₹15,000 a month. An eight-hour shift fetches them about ₹400-450 and a 12-hour shift about ₹600. Those who have spent more than six to eight years in the pharma units also get similar salaries.

The reasons for migrating to Visakhapatnam in search of a livelihood are diverse — the lack of employment opportunities in their native place, mounting debt, and impending weddings of sisters and daughters.

Madhusudan, 35, from Khurda district of Odisha, who has been working at a pharma unit since 2015, says, “Two young men from my village, Bikas Padhi and Mohanty came to JNPC 10 years ago and earned good money. That encouraged many others to seek a livelihood in Visakhapatnam, which is closer to my native place than Karnataka, Maharashtra, or Gujarat.” He makes ₹13,000 a month, most of which he sends back to his wife. He has a daughter, who is already married.

Shoddy facilities

In Parawada mandal, industrial pollution has led many residents to abandon their homes. However, they have constructed mini housing complexes, each comprising four or five houses of 125-170 sq. metres each, which they rent out to workers. These workers, in groups of five to 10, rent a room for approximately ₹1,500 per month. Many of these rooms lack even basic amenities like toilets. Power cuts are regular; and the mosquito population large.

The lack of drinking water facilities is a major problem, forcing workers to rely on borewell water, often contaminated, as they cannot afford mineral water cans that cost a minimum of ₹60 each.

“Many workers leave after working for two or three months due to the poor facilities. A pungent smell emanates from the surroundings as the industries emit smoke,” says Gonthai Setty, a migrant worker from Bankura district of West Bengal, who lives in a rented room near Thadi village in Parawada mandal, inside JNPC.

On the brighter side, however, there is a six-story hostel facility in Pedda Thadi village within JNPC with 50 rooms, each equipped with bathroom facilities. These rooms are available for a monthly rent of ₹3,000. Some migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha, choose to live here, often with their families.

Long road to safety, dignity

While the workers toil tirelessly, they remain at the mercy of a system that often neglects their well-being and safety. It is clear that urgent measures are needed to improve the living and working conditions of these migrant workers, says CPI(M) Anakapalli district secretary K.K. Lokanadham.

Reflecting on their struggles, he says it is the responsibility of the company management or the labour contractor to extend decent accommodation to the workers.

“The rented houses that the workers live in resemble a dump yard with no facilities. The company management provides safety gear to permanent employees. But the contract workers barely get it. The management gives a huge ex-gratia to the kin of a permanent employee in case of accidental death. But a contract worker’s family gets only one-third of that [approximately ₹10 to 25 lakh]. The government must take steps to ensure proper living and working conditions for migrant workers,” says Lokanadham.

G. Satyanarayana of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), who has been working for the welfare of the migrant workers for the past two decades, says poor safety measures at the industrial units are to blame for the accidents.

“Despite recurrent accidents, the factory managements do not mend their ways. We have been demanding that the authorities conduct a safety audit. The government must conduct checks on the functioning of reactors, pipelines, and key units,” he says.

The last time the Factories department officials interacted with the press in July this year, they had said that “constant vigil” has been mounted on industries to curb possible accidents.

During a media interaction in August this year, Andhra Pradesh IT and Industries Minister Gudivada Amarnath admitted that despite conducting safety audits and taking precautionary measures, industrial accidents continue unabated. He said he would ensure safety measures were in place.

“Some trade unions allege that human negligence is leading to industrial accidents. This is not true. If there are any technical jobs in an industry, the management hires qualified employees. No management wants a unit handled by unskilled workers,” he had said.

Refuting the claims of the workers’ unions, a senior official from the JNPC, who did not want to be quoted, said that based on the work, proper training is being given to the workers without fail.

A minor negligence by a worker will lead to mishaps, so all units take the responsibility to provide basic training on-site. This apart, the units also provide safety gear to the workers right from helmets and shoes, to masks and gloves. No management wants mishaps or deaths to occur, he said.

Senior CPI(M) leader B .Ganga Rao says most units barely spend 5% of their turnover to pay salaries of employees. “They receive government support and carry out activities in the name of corporate social responsibility. However, when it comes to taking care of workers, especially those earning a daily wage and in the lower rung of the staffing, their negligence is all too apparent,” he says.

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