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Workers feel the heat over 2010 venues

NEW DELHI, Oct 4 – In the early morning Delhi air, Brij Mohan troops off to work at the building site of the Nehru stadium in the heart of the city to face the discomfort and dangers of a day’s labouring.

Mohan, 28, cuts a miserable figure as he describes the pressure and workload faced by thousands of people who are racing against time to complete various 2010 Commonwealth Games venues.

So far, 10 workers have died on Games-related projects but trade unions and activists warn the final figure could be higher.

"We are only human, we can’t work like machines," he says, waving his hands, roughened by years of grind and grime.

New Delhi beat the Canadian city of Hamilton in November 2003 to win the right to host the Games in October 2010 but six years later 14 of the 19 Games-related projects remain less than half-finished.

"There have been many incidents since December last year," said Rajeev Sharma, regional coordinator for Building and Wood Workers’ International, which promotes and enforces workers’ rights globally.

"There is pressure from the government on contractors and safety issues are being overlooked. We have met the chief minister of Delhi as well as the labour minister to apprise them of the situation."

He said the government faced a tricky situation because of the need to meet deadlines while respecting labour laws, with every death facing public scrutiny because of the high public profile of the projects.

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India, like many developing countries, suffers from lax enforcement of health and safety regulations and details of workplace accidents are a regular feature in the country’s newspapers.

At least 39 people were killed last week when a partially built chimney at a power plant in central India collapsed during a storm.

According to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO), nearly 50,000 Indians die from work-related accidents or illness every year.

Workers on the site of the main Commonwealth stadium have been issued with hard hats, yet most work in open-toed sandals and live in cramped tin tenements in which illnesses are rife.

In the last Commonwealth Games-related mortality, 21-year-old Sunil was crushed to death at the Nehru stadium when a cement mixer toppled onto him.

One labourer, who refused to be identified, said the driver of the vehicle had fallen asleep behind the wheel.

"Sunil breathed his last in front of our eyes," he said, pointing towards the spot where the gruesome accident happened.

"After his death, things have improved in the sense that we now work in two shifts to ensure everyone gets some rest."

Six workers died during preparations for the Beijing Olympics last year, according to official figures, while there were 14 deaths in the run-up to the Athens Olympics in 2004 and one for the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

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The Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006 was incident-free.

Obvious building site hazards such as machinery are not the only concerns: there is also the threat of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria in the shelters that serve as home for the workers.

A banner put up at one of the construction sites urged the workers to take care not to contract the diseases, but many complain the poor living conditions are a breeding ground for bacteria and bugs.

"We have to share everything from rooms to toilets and towels," said labourer Mukesh Manjhi, 36, who like many others here hails from the impoverished eastern state of Bihar.

"Every other day one or another guy reports sick at work."

Officials at the state-run Sports Authority of India refused to comment on worker safety but admitted there was "pressure from the top" to speed things up before the Commonwealth Games Federation general assembly in early October.

"The assembly has put the organising committee as well as the government under added pressure to show things are going well," an official said."

The chief executive of the Games organising committee secretariat, Vijay Gautam, said that several projects were running on very tight schedules and working hours had been extended.

"Those venues which are running behind schedule may cause some problems," Gautam said.

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"But the pace of work has picked up at almost all the venues, and work shifts have increased so that deadlines can be met."


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