soniasarkar26

Enter the dragons

Posted on: December 16, 2011

Some of Jharkhand’s up and coming steel and power plants are being built with the help of Chinese engineers. But the expats have an uneasy relationship with the locals and can’t wait to get back to their own country.

It’s a hot and sultry afternoon, with a power cut adding to the heat. Li Rui and Wang Pu have broken for lunch, and are playing a desultory round of weiqi, an ancient Chinese board game. Li, 41, lights a cigarette and looks around his room despairingly. “The temperature is unbearable and so are the living conditions. I would’ve never come to this obscure place. But the company wanted this project, and so I had to come,” he says. The temperature in his hometown in China’s Shandong province is a pleasant 24 degrees in June. “Life is so much easier there,” he says.

But it’s going to be a while before Li goes home. He is the deputy president of the Shandong Province Design Metallurgical Engineering Company Ltd — a Chinese hardware engineering firm which has been helping Calcutta-based Electrosteel Steels Limited (ESL) set up a plant in a village called Siyaljori, 22km from Jharkhand’s Bokaro Steel City. Li has brought in 120 senior engineers and five interpreters, including Wang, to set the ball rolling for the Rs 8,400-crore project.

There are 1,216 Chinese workers in Siyaljori, 30 per cent of them women. These include skilled and semi-skilled workers that the ESL has brought in through two other Chinese consultancy firms — the China First Metallurgical Construction India Private Limited and Ershisanye Construction Group India Private Limited or the 23rd MCC — to help build its steel plant.

A senior ESL official reveals that the project will be executed at half the cost with Chinese machineries and manpower. “To instal the machineries we imported from China, we needed Chinese hardware engineers,” says Rama Shankar Singh, director and plant in-charge. And Chinese help, he explains, is vital. “China produces 700 million tonnes of steel annually as against India’s 60 million tonnes. Chinese experts are employed to complete the project faster.” Siyaljori — a one-horse town, if any — doesn’t look like Chinatown. But for the last three years, Chinese men and women have been living there at a stretch for three to six months. The signs of the inhabitants are only visible inside their rooms, which have been decorated with red Chinese calendars, lanterns, chimes and candles. These are signs that recall home in a country several thousand kilometres away. Life, by all accounts, is tough.

“We start our day at 6am and end it after 12 hours with a three-hour lunch break,” says Xinnian Li, the director of 23rd MCC. “After coming back to the dormitory, there is no recreation. Even the Internet connection is poor.”

UNHAPPY LIVES: Chinese workers at the ESL construction site in Siyaljori. Pictures by Sonia Sarkar

The visitors live in a 40-acre campus, 8km from the plant, in single rooms in a complex that resembles military barracks. The rooms are furnished with a bed, a table, a sofa and a cupboard. Each barrack has a few air-conditioned rooms for the bosses. The three Chinese contingents have their own canteens, and two have Chinese cooks. The evenings, the workers say with the help of interpreters, are mostly dull. Sometimes they play volleyball, and occasionally they watch a Chinese film, clustered around a laptop. Some try to beat their loneliness by listening to Bollywood music.

“Though I don’t understand the language I love the rhythm,” says 28-year old Net (he uses only his first name), the HR manager of 23rd MCC. ESL buses ferry the workers to and from the construction sites. The dormitories are guarded by 36 police personnel round the clock and are under CCTV surveillance. That’s because the Chinese presence has provoked some violence in the area.

Entrepreneurs, though, are not complaining about the foreigners. About half a dozen restaurants offering Chinese food have opened since the ESL project started three years ago. “Our sales go up by 25 per cent on the weekends when they dine in our restaurant,” says Kartick Singh, senior captain of Seventh Heaven at Mahuda, 20km from Siyaljori. The restaurant even organises birthday parties for the visitors with cakes, chocolates and flowers.

Bokaro jewellers are happy with the visitors as well. “The Chinese like and buy silver, especially anklets and bangles,” says Prakash Singh, owner of Jewar India. Music shop Unique Collections is doing brisk business too. “The Chinese have been buying CDs of new Bollywood numbers — such as Sheela ki jawani and Munni badnaam hui — in bulk to take to China,” says owner Ritesh Yadav.

Spending freely isn’t a problem for the Chinese workers, whose salaries here are higher than what they’d get back home. “Our engineer gets a monthly salary of Rs 90,000, which is at least 20 per cent higher than China’s pay scale,” Li reveals, adding that semi-skilled Chinese workers get Rs 50,000 a month, almost double of earnings back home.

Siyaljori isn’t the only place in Jharkhand with Chinese manpower. Giridih- based Atibir Industries Company Limited, which is building a Rs 350-crore steel unit, has employed around 20 Chinese engineers in Mahtodih.

The Abhijeet Group’s Corporate Power Limited has engaged the Shanghai Engineering Power Construction Company for its 1,200-mega watt thermal power plant coming up in Palamau district. “The Chinese are hardworking, disciplined and focused,” emphasises ESL’s Singh. Yet what’s palpable in Siyaljori is the lack of interaction between the locals and the foreigners. Both the communities are wary of each other, and there have been skirmishes. “We have advised the Chinese to have minimum or no interaction with the locals,” says Bokaro collector Amitabh Kaushal. Security at the site was beefed up two years ago after attacks by villagers on the management and on some Chinese staffers. Saket Singh, Bokaro’s superintendent of police, says 22 criminal cases have been filed against the management and 50 against villagers. “To avoid further tension, we want to reduce the interaction between the Chinese and Indians,” he says. A police station has also been set up nearby to ensure peace.

Resentment has been brewing over compensation packages offered by the ESL management for acquiring land, and benefits the Chinese workers get that the locals don’t. The perception that the locals are being denied unskilled jobs has been stoking the fire, but the ESL and Chinese contractors claim that the Chinese workers are “skilled technicians of high quality” and not unskilled. Locals who do have jobs complain of a huge disparity in pay.

A Chinese carpenter is paid a monthly salary of Rs 30,000 whereas an Indian, says an Indian interpreter working there, is paid Rs 2,100 for the same work. “Unlike the Chinese workers, we are not given any uniforms, boots or helmets,” says Sanjay Kumar, a welder. ESL chief Singh, however, says this is not an issue the company can address. “We cannot interfere with the functioning of the Chinese contractors who pay their Chinese workers. Our labourers are paid according to our wage rules.”

Not surprisingly, with the hostile conditions, most Chinese workers want to go back home. “I am just waiting for my visa to expire next month. I will go and never come back. It is not worth coming back here, leaving behind the family,” complains Wang Xing, a carpenter. For the Chinese visitors, it’s been a summer of discontent.

 

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