BY SAURAV KUMAR

All the floodlights in the world couldn’t dispel the gloom that evening. It was the hour of darkness, of shock. Death had visited the construction site. A lift cable had snapped, the cage had hurtled down more than a hundred feet to crash on the grey soil. One worker was killed and four were injured. They were working on a big project designed by a big architect that was being constructed by a big company so that Indians with big cash banks could buy it.

As far as construction sites go, this one made a show of its conscience. Safety notices and diagrams were all over, workers always wore helmets, and signage—many in English—advised them on how to go about their jobs, gave moral sermons, and stopped just short of saying how all this was in the service of the nation.

The workers, many still wearing orange safety jackets and yellow helmets, stood by the busy road outside the heavy iron gates manned by helpless-looking security guards. They were silent, save for a few whispers, and looked frightened: like everyone knew, this could happen anytime; any one of them could die any day. Only honking by impatient car drivers made itself heard, a noise that bluntly cut through air still with grief.

This was not the scene every other day at 6 p.m. when shifts would change. There would be nervous energy, laughs and claps, a lightness in workers that comes only when they are off the clock. Three months before the lift had crashed, a handcart had stationed itself on the other side of the road, and its owner did brisk business by providing the best of Indian-Chinese cuisine to labourers exiting the site. A plate of chicken fried rice sold for Rs. 30, and was much sought-after. That evening, the stove was not fired up; no worker came for the grub. There was no sign of the white beat-up bus either, the one that ferried the workers to their shanties on the banks of a stinking river. Instead, they stood outside, like a voiceless flock of crows mourning the death of one of their own.

The workers preferred to work in sites like these. The project was too prestigious for contractors to cut too many corners. Any negative publicity was unwelcome. They were paid on time and a little better than at other places. A 28-year-old man, a veteran of construction sites in five states, said that this was a good gig—at least the contractors’ men didn’t beat you up every now and then—and that the hours were fixed. He had seen much worse, had even had some lucky escapes himself. He didn’t know the man who died, that he was a Bengali was all he knew. And anyway, people used all sorts of names in this line. He tugged at his shirt that was a couple of sizes too big for his small frame.

He said, “Nobody cares, even we don’t. Every project I have worked on, labourers have died. I will be here tomorrow to work. I will work even if there’s another accident here.”

Hundreds work here, building apartments that are going to be 16 storeys high and that offer six million square feet of commercial and residential space to those who can afford it. Newspapers have often published full-page advertisements, sometimes even below their mastheads, to let the world know what a swell thing the project is: imported Italian marble, wooden flooring, jacuzzis in master bedrooms, and other necessities of life. The worker’s death got little attention: two English dailies gave two different names; one just carried five sentences, the other identified the man as “from the north”, and another didn’t think it was news fit to print. No one did a follow-up.

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