Mumbai, Oct. 3: Two men without jobs today set themselves afire in front of Bombay House, the headquarters of the Tatas and an icon of the country’s thriving commercial capital.
Anand Dalvi and Akhtar Khan — both in their forties and with families to support — were fighting for their lives at St George Hospital where they were admitted with 90 and 60 per cent burns, the resident medical officer said.
Their former colleagues and friends, who had gathered in large numbers at the hospital, said the two were employed as contract labour in Tata Power till 1996 — Dalvi as a peon and Khan as a rigger — and had been jobless since.
“In accordance with their contractual terms, the services of the workers ceased on completion of the projects they were working on in 1996,” a company statement said. “All legal dues were paid. Furthermore, though no additional compensation was required to be paid, TPC (Tata Power Company), on its own accord paid additional compensation.”
Contracts of around 500 contract labourers, working on two units at the company’s Trombay plant, were terminated once the projects were completed.
“It was mentioned in the employment letters that their employment would cease once the project is completed,” said Prabhakar Kukde, executive director, operations.
Around 70 of these workers could not find jobs and some of them had gathered in front of Bombay House today in the belief that Tata Hydro Companies Employees’ Union — the representative workers’ organisation in Tata Power — would negotiate some relief for them.
It now appears to have been a mistaken belief. “We were to sign today a wage agreement with the union,” said Kukde.
The agreement was meant to be a Dussehra gift to the company’s 2,064 employees who are to get a Rs 3,500 raise a month and gratuity for 21 instead of 15 days.
Union members had put up banners at Carnac Bunder Building, where the agreement was to be signed at a ceremony beginning at 4.30 pm. It was put off as news of the tragedy spread.
Dalvi, Khan and their fellow unemployed workers did not seem to have knowledge of this. They wanted to meet union leader Kailesh Shinde, but found out he was not even there.
The union had lodged a case in the labour court in 1996 and the case is still being heard. The workers claimed that Shinde had promised them compensation. Shinde could not be contacted on his mobile phone.
“Dalvi and Khan must have felt worse. They were walking a little ahead of us. Suddenly we heard screams and saw that they had set themselves on fire,” said Gupta, another former worker present at the hospital.
Khan was in a more vulnerable state. A resident of a Chembur slum, he had his belongings thrown out of his house today by the landlord and was asked to move out by tonight.
Khan’s wife, Amina, said he had told her that the workers had been betrayed by the union and he was very tense, but she had no idea he would try to kill himself. “I have nowhere to go now. We were thrown out of the house this morning. I have five daughters to look after,” she cried.
Dalvi has his wife, mother, two daughters and a son living with him. Anjali, Dalvi’s wife, and his mother work as maids.
Ashok Kotian, a former technician who does odd jobs now, said most workers were in their late or middle forties and were “unemployable”.
Contract jobs are usually terminated within two years because beyond that workers can seek permanent employment. As the length of employment at 10 years was long, these workers hoped to find permanent jobs with the company. “One fine day they said they did not need us,” said Joseph Njarlely.
“What do we do with construction workers after projects are completed'” asked Kukde.