| Children of Sheikh Akhtar grieve near Malda. Picture by Surojit Roy
New Delhi/Ratua (Malda), Dec. 25: Eleven labourers from Malda, working 50 feet below ground level, were buried alive when a mound of earth caved in last evening at a south Delhi construction site.
At least five others are feared trapped under the debris in the trench, where the basement for a shopping mall was being built. Rescue efforts are on.
The accident, which comes amid a raging controversy over demolition of illegal structures in Delhi, was probably caused by the weight of a huge billboard erected near the site, officials said.
Survivor Arseth Sabji, one of 40 labourers hired from Malda by the contractor, alleged they were preparing to leave after the day’s work when the engineer ordered them to continue digging.
“We warned him that further digging would cause an accident but he forced us to carry on,” Sabji said.
“It’s negligence. Proper legal action will be taken,” joint commissioner of police B.S. Bassi said. But the India Colonisers Private Limited ' owner of the 5,000-sq m plot 'claimed that all safety norms had been followed by the contractor, New Age Builders.
The Delhi government has ordered a probe and arrested two managing partners of New Age Builders, S.K. Khattar and Arun Khanduja.
The 40 labourers had come to Delhi on a 50-day contract. Police are looking for Bablu Sheikh, the man who had the job of supplying labourers for the project.
“Poverty had forced us to leave home and come to Delhi so that our families could survive,” a weeping survivor, Dulal Sarkar, said. “Most of those who died had been working here for only about three weeks.”
Ratua, home to 10 of the dead, and Manikchak, where one of the victims lived, were numbed by the tragedy. Sheikh Akhtar of Mominpur village in Ratua leaves behind his 65-year-old mother, wife, son and married daughter.
“We paid a dowry of Rs 30,000 for our daughter’s marriage six months ago,” Akhtar’s wife Afsar Bibi sobbed. “Her in-laws wanted Rs 20,000 more. My husband went to Delhi to try and earn the money.”
Neighbour Tamina Bewa, a widow who lost her 22-year-old son Zahur Alam in the accident, said: “Not in my worst nightmare could I have imagined this could happen.”
“The families are too poor to bring back the bodies,” Bengal food processing minister Sailen Sarkar said. “Our party MP, Brinda Karat, will see that the bodies are sent by train.”
The Delhi government has announced Rs 1 lakh for the family of each of the dead, Rs 50,000 for the seriously injured and Rs 25,000 for those with minor injuries.
Malda district magistrate Abhijit Chowdhury promised to add to that. “Six labourers from Chanchal had died in a similar incident; their families were given Rs 2 lakh each,” he said.
The CPM alleged “blatant violation” of safety norms and labour laws at Delhi’s construction sites and demanded regular government inspections.