Kulwant Singh, 28, was preparing for class 12 board exams, and working as a house-keeping personnel for Rs 16,000 a month.
Deepak, 25, had recently become a father. His five-month-old daughter lives in Inderpuri. He too worked as a housekeeping personnel for Rs 11,500 a month. His family had moved to Delhi from Gwalior.
Sunny, 33, was uneducated and tightly held on to this job that paid him Rs 11,500 a month. Father of a 10-year-old boy, Sunny moved to Delhi from Tauru in Haryana in 2000.
On Sunday, 8 January, these three men were killed after a hydraulic lift malfunctioned and crashed from the fourth floor at a gutka factory in Delhi’s Naraina. Meanwhile, 24-year-old Suraj, who sustained grievous injuries, is undergoing treatment at a hospital.
Kulwant, Deepak and Sunny’s names have been added to a long, shameful list of people – mostly migrant workers – who’ve been killed on the job. Their lives, and now their death, tell the sordid tale of migrant workers in metros.
Headline after headline mentions how labourers aren’t provided safety gear while on the job – a violation of labour laws.
In fact, on the same day, two labourers were killed in Mumbai’s Worli, after a lift trolly crashed in an under-construction building.
In the Delhi case, an FIR under Sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 337 (negligence causing hurt) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was registered at Delhi’s Naraina police station. No one has been arrested so far.
“Ab ghar kaun sambhalega?” asked relatives of the three men, as they stood outside the morgue where the post-mortem was being conducted on 9 January.
Hours later, kin of the three deceased staged a protest outside Delhi's Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital against alleged police inaction and refused to take the bodies home for cremation. They claimed that the police delayed filing the FIR and did not inform the families of the deceased about the occurrence of the accident in time.
This is the story of Kulwant, Deepak and Sunny – and also of countless other labourers who were met with a similar fate.
What Happened on 8 January?
As per DCP West Ghanshyam Bansal, the Delhi Police received PCR calls from Deen Dayal Upadhyay (DDU) hospital and BL Kapoor hospital at 5.44 pm and 5.47 pm, respectively, regarding “information of admission of injured and deceased due to a lift that had fallen down.”
Jagjeet Singh, 31, who is Kulwant’s brother, told The Quint, “I have been told by workers who brought the injured to the hospital that the incident took place at around 3 pm on Sunday. But, we were informed by the hospital authorities that my brother was 'brought-dead' after 5.30 pm. I want to know what happened in those two hours.”
He alleged that company that the workers were employed with – Icon Housekeeping Pvt Ltd – did not even call in to inform the families about the accident. The gutka company had outsourced housekeeping services from Icon Housekeeping Pvt Ltd.
Jagjeet said that his brother and the three other men were called in on Sunday for housekeeping work. “I have been told by other workers in the factory that they took the hydraulic lift to carry some cargo in the afternoon, and it malfunctioned. It came crashing down from the fourth floor to the basement. Such was the impact that it went up to the second floor and came crashing down to the basement again," claimed Jagjeet, as he fought back tears outside the morgue.
"He was in the lift when the crash happened. He did not get hurt on his head. But, neck-down, he is paralysed," said Monu, brother of Suraj, the solo survivor of the crash. Monu's younger brother is admitted to the ICU in Delhi's BLK hospital and is undergoing treatment.
Meanwhile, Satyadev, whose nephew Sunny is one of the three men who were killed in the lift crash in Naraina, alleged, “It was an old hydraulic lift, which was due for maintenance. They should have halted its operation. Sunny’s employer has not come forward yet or taken any responsibility – let alone offer any compensation.”
The Quint spoke to Rajesh Kumar, an activist and General Secretary of the Indian Federation of Trade Union (IFTU) about such incidents. He lamented, “The main reason behind such accidents being so commonplace is that no one audits these industries to check if all safety guidelines are in place. For instance, in this case, did the company have permission for operating a lift in the building? If yes, how old is the lift? When was it last serviced? When was the last time its wiring was checked?”
Who Were The Men Who Died?
Kulwant Singh, 28
In 2017, Kulwant moved to Jordan, where he worked as supervisor. “He had to come back to India when COVID-19 hit as businesses shut and lockdowns forced migrants to go back home. We also lost our father in 2021. He took up this job of housekeeping but he really wanted to go back to Jordan,” his brother told The Quint.
This is why Kulwant was studying for his class XII board exams, so he could apply for a job of a security guard. He is survived by his two siblings. “Our younger sister Jaspreet was to get married this year," he said dejectedly.
Outside the DDU mortuary, Bhuvnesh sat quietly and stared at his brother Deepak’s listless body shrouded in white lying on a stretcher. He told The Quint, “My brother would have been alive today if there had been no delay in taking him to a hospital. I will not take his body home till police takes some action.”
Home is Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh where Deepak, Bhuvnesh and another sibling grew up. Deepak didn’t study beyond class nine and moved to Delhi in 2000 for better job opportunities.
In August 2022, he had a daughter – a photo of which is a part of Bhuvnesh’s gallery on his phone. At the housekeeping firm, Deepak earned Rs 16,000 a month. “Ab to bas ghar sambhalna hai (Now, I'll have to take care of the house),” said Bhuvnesh, who works with an insurance company.
On 31 December, Satyadev met his nephew Sunny as they brought in the New Year together. “He was fit, fine and happy. I had asked why he was toiling for Rs 11,500, and suggested that he take up another job. But he said he was fine here as he had not studied at all. He wondered where he would even find a new job,” recalled Satyadev, as he stood outside the DDU mortuary.
Sunny was born and raised in Delhi, though his family hails from Haryana’s Tauru village. He is survived by his wife and their 10-year-old son. “Who is going to take care of his family now?” asked Satyadev.
People, Not Just Numbers
Kulwant, Deepak and Sunny’s deaths are not one-off cases. On 19 March 2021, the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment informed the Parliament that at least 6,500 workers had died on duty at factories, ports, mines and construction sites in the last five years, as reported by Mint.
Of the total deaths, 5,629, or over 80 percent, were reported in factory settings, while 549 deaths were reported from mines, 74 at ports and 237 died in central government jurisdiction (central sphere) construction sites, the report added.
Experts, however, say that these may be conservative estimates as many cases of injuries and deaths do go unreported.
According to data collected by IndustriAll, a global workers’ union, seven accidents were reported every month in Indian manufacturing industries, killing more than 162 workers in 2021 alone.
In fact, apart from the three men killed in lift crash in Delhi and two in Mumbai on 9 January, a day later, a 28-year-old service engineer trying to uninstall a temporary lift at a construction site in Noida’s sector 150 died after the lift came crashing down 25 floors, The Times of India reported.
On 4 January, another case was reported from Vikhroli in Mumbai where one worker died and three others were injured after a under construction car-parking lift in a residential building crashed.
In September 2022, seven labourers were killed and one was injured, while they were working inside an elevator shaft at an under-construction building in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
In October 2022, a 35-year-old worker died and seven others were injured when a goods elevator crashed from the third floor of a textile factory in Bhatar area of Surat, The Indian Express reported.
On what can be done to keep a check on such accidents, IFTU’s Kumar said, “We have constantly demanded that officers of the state and central government frequently audit factories to ensure safety guidelines are in place. And this should be incorporated in the new labour codes."
"Monetary penalising is not sufficient. Compensation cannot bring back someone’s family member and their livelihood but strict punishment can ensure that such cases do not happen so frequently.”Rajesh Kumar, General Secretary, IFTU
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