The shadows cast by hulking machines, sparks from the welder’s soldering gun, serpentine hoses, humungous metal pipes and crater-like pits filled with water – the Kochi Metro Rail work site opposite Changampuzha Park, Edappally, looks like a scene out of a sci-fi film.
It is 9 p.m., the 12-hour night shift started an hour ago. Workers lug pipes and poles to the piling site. It is heads-down and work time. A couple of junior engineers from the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) supervise work. “They are in the site-office,” i was informed.
The makeshift site-office is bright-lit. The junior engineers speak to a couple of workers, giving them instructions, meanwhile a worker signs the attendance register. Pooja Sudhir and Roshni C.V. are in-charge. Work is on at five rigs, which keeps them busy all night. They worked at the North Bridge site before being moved to this site. This is Roshni’s first job after graduating. It is exciting, she admits.
The inevitable, safety question pops up. “It is perfectly safe here. Plus there is frequent police patrolling and a police station nearby. We are safe here.”
There is a distant rumbling of machinery, “piling is on. We have to go there,” Pooja says as she hands us hard hats, “a must at our sites,” boots too, because of the slush. “And we will walk”, she says. It is impossible to walk through the enclosed stretch; one has to walk along the road between the partitions and the oncoming traffic. It is almost 9.30 p.m. At a time, during the shift, there are around 50 workers at work. The site wears a deserted look, but it turns out that the action is around the piling site.
There is a cluster of workers and engineers around a machine grinding a pit into the ground. Instructions are yelled back and forth. “In Delhi, we didn’t have to dig so much to reach hard surface. Here, we have to dig as deep as 27 metres because the soil is loose. And this takes time,” says Pankaj Kumar, half in exasperation. The native of Madhubani in Bihar, a site engineer with Jindal, sub-contractor on the project, he has been in Kochi for a week and all of it on the night shift. “I am sure Kochi is beautiful. Only that I need to see it in daylight,” he jokes.
Arrangements for accommodation for engineers and workers have been made at places such as Ponekkara, Pathadipalam and Kalamasserry (for workers on this stretch, we are told). It is national integration of sorts on site – there are professionals from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Rajasthan, Bengal, Orissa and Tamil Nadu besides Kerala.
Food is provided for the workers by the contractors. Rest stations are provided; these are either containers with doors and windows or sheds covered with plastic or tin sheets. In some of these rest stations workers are taking a nap. “They are provided breaks in between. Only that it has to be in rotation. There have to be substitute workers,” Pooja says.
The shifts are in rotation. A lot of activity takes place at night on the sites since the working conditions are better, “the heat for instance,” says Pooja on the walk back. “There is no time to take a nap. There is lot walking to do between the five rigs.”
The ‘Union’ workers are a separate category. These are the local workers. V.P. John and Suresh Kumar P.K., the Union workers, are resting in the rest station. John is part of the crew doing the piling and Suresh Kumar is an electrician. There are a few other workers, some are Malayalis. So is this the Union rest station? “No. We are all united. There is nothing like that here,” says John. Working night shift is nothing new, they say.
The facilities? “Well…there are no latrines.” At one end of the site there are a couple of mobile toilets. But that is not enough, John’s shaking head seems to suggest.
JCB operator Ranjan M.G., from Thiruvananthapuram, lounges in his JCB. He has no complaints, “the work here is much better.”
Since work is on at five rigs (the work on piling for the pillars) there is no time for rest, says Prahlad Chaudhary, a welder with L&T. He is welding an iron frame, referred to as a cage which goes into the ground as part of the piling process. Parts are welded to make these. Sparks from his welding gun look especially bright in the semi-darkness.
“Once I finish here, I will move on to the next stretch where my colleagues are working. We get rest also in between so it is not as strenuous as one would imagine.” Prahalad, from Patna, has been in Kochi for the last two months.
It is close to 11 p.m. and Edappally has gone to bed. Everything is quiet except at the site which is groaning into activity. All shops in the vicinity are shut except for Supper Club, a teashop-trying-to-be small hotel. Joseph E.R., the owner, sits outside with a friend. Beef vindaloo, naadan fish curry, chemmeen, chapathi…the menu announces. “The North Indians don’t eat our food but they come here for tea. But the engineers come and eat here.” Joseph opened the shop on a couple of days after work started here.
The Metro Rail will change Kochi. By the looks of it, the change is picking up pace.