Monday, April 18, 2016

Supriya Sharma - Changing the name of Gurgaon will do nothing for its Eklavyas: Every year, more than 1,000 workers in the area's automobile industry lose their hands and fingers

The renaming of Gurgaon to Gurugram has led back to the region's mythical past: the new identity, claims the Haryana government, reflects the belief that Dronacharya, the teacher of the Pandavas, once lived in the area. To many people, though, the one part of the Dronacharya story that stands out is how Eklavya, a young man from the margins of society, lost his thumb to the guru's guileThe form may be different, but the treachery of the privileged is real today.

Not far from the glitzy highrises of the Millennium city is the automobile hub of Manesar. Here, hundreds of factories produce parts that are assembled into cars. On the shop floor of these factories, an alarming number of workers are losing their thumbs, fingers, sometimes entire hands to avoidable accidents.

Unlike the Eklavya of Mahabharata, these workers are not even aspiring to greatness. They have simply come to Gurgaon from the impoverished villages of North India to seek a living wage. Some of them are barely out of their teens. Almost none have been trained to work in a factory.

Often, the accidents take place at the end of a long, never-ending work shift, when the metal arm of a machine called power press comes down on the hand of a tired, sleepy worker. In 2014, while researching a story on industrial safety, I stumbled upon this epidemic of broken fingers. A friend, Ravi Gulati, read the piece and shared it with his former classmates from management school, Sandeep Sachdeva and Prabhat Agarwal. They formed a group called "Safe in India" and initiated research to know the contours of the problem better. Their findings, published in this report, were damning.

Steep losses, cheap safety: The report estimated that every year, more than 1,000 workers in Manesar faced "crush injuries" ‒ as the injuries to hands and fingers are called. Looking more closely at the cases of 20 injured workers, they found 16 of them had not been trained. In eight cases, there was no system of inspections of machines in the factories, and in another five cases, the safety inspections were ad-hoc and irregular.

Worse, there was no safety control system in 14 of the 20 cases. Not a single worker had been given any safety gear. This is shocking, because, as I had found in my research, the safety gear does not cost much. In one of the factories I visited, the operations manager had taken me around the shop floor to show the newly installed pneumatic presses with inbuilt sensors that automatically stopped the rotation of the machine’s arm if a worker's hand came in the way. The pneumatic presses cost Rs 20 lakh, he said. This was more than twice the cost of the mechanical presses, which featured in the accidents. Other countries had moved to using pneumatic presses, but India was still making and using mechanical machines without safety mechanisms, which, as a safety expert told me, was akin to building bicycles without brakes.

But even mechanical presses could be made safer, the manager said. All that companies needed to do was install a double hand-safety mechanism, which ensured that the machine's arm came down only when both the hands of the worker were engaged in pressing buttons, and hence, out of harm's way. The cost of installing the two buttons: just Rs 28,000.

An even cheaper safety mechanism, the manager explained, was getting workers to use magnetic clamps, or rods with magnets installed at one end which could lift the metal pieces without putting the worker’s hands at risk. The cost of the clamps: just Rs 25.

The real cost: In September last year, the report prepared by the Safe in India group was released in Gurgaon, at a high-powered event attended by senior executives in the automobile industry. While acknowledging the problem, and admitting it was shameful, some of the executives sought to insidiously blame workers for the accidents, arguing that in their hunger for more money, they worked overtime, sneaking in twice for a double shift.

In the plush auditorium, there were just three workers in the 200-strong crowd. One of the panellists, from a non-profit group that works on issues of migration and labour, tried to highlight the conditions of economic insecurity that workers face, earning barely enough to survive. But the executives seemed to be tone-deaf, talking instead of the cost squeeze the companies faced.

Once the discussion opened up for questions, I asked the executives what stopped them from installing the safety mechanisms. "The magnetic clamps cost just Rs 25," I said. "At least you can make that mandatory for all shop floors." One of the executives nodded, agreeing that this should be done, but stopped short of making any promises.

Outside, over tea and snacks, I went up to him. "It is not a cost issue," he said, more relaxed since he was no longer in the public gaze. "Actually, the cost of the clamps is even less than what you cited." Then, why don't companies get them for the workers, I asked. The safety mechanisms, whether the clamps, or the double hand-safety mechanisms, slow down production, he said. "That's why companies are reluctant to get them." If this is not treachery of the privileged, what is?

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