What A Bihari Migrant's Death During a Road Accident in Punjab Reveals About the State

The site of the accident where 17-year-old Sabir Ali, a migrant worker from Bihar, collided with a car while on his cycle. Ali died on the way to the hospital. ISHAN MARVEL
01 October, 2015

In October 2013, 17-year-old Sabir Ali left his home in Chhagelia village in Kishan Ganj district, Bihar, to look for work in Punjab. Ali and his friend Mohammed Jamal were two of twenty men who were, like many before them, looking for jobs as agricultural labourers. A thriving agricultural economy, Punjab has been host to a large number of migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for several decades now. The two young men soon found employment with Harkishan Singh, a local landowner, near Chhokran village, in the Shahid Bhagat Singh (SBS) Nagar district. They were also allowed to stay inside the tubewells, or “motors” located around Singh’s fields—a common practice for migrant labourers in Punjab.

On the morning of 22 December 2013, at around 10:30 am, Ali and Jamal left on their cycles for the market at Rahon, about four kilometres away. As Ali emerged from the fields through a mudpath that met a link road, he collided with a white Skoda Octavia. He suffered a head injury. Ravinder Singh—a 28-year-old, and at the time of the accident, the sole occupant of the car—drove Ali and Jamal to Raja hospital in Nawanshahr, another village about eight kilometres from the spot. Ali died on the way.

Ali’s case was brought to my attention in August this year by Mayank Aggarwal, a Delhi-based lawyer, who had taken this case up pro bono in February 2014. Aggarwal provided me with copies of the police records. These included two written statements, dated 22 December 2013—the day of the accident—one signed by Jamal, and another by a second eyewitness, Gurcharan Singh, a local land owner who happened to be at his fields along the road at the time of the accident. In his statement, Jamal had identified himself to the police as Ali’s cousin. Both statements stated that the accident was entirely Ali’s fault since he “moved on to... [the] road without looking left and right side [sic].” This account detailed in the statement was repeated throughout the police records, including the investigation and death reports.

A joint statement signed by several witnesses, also dated 22 December 2013, concluded: “Car driver Ravinder Singh has [sic] no mistake and we have neither any doubt in the death of Sabir Alam [sic], nor we wish to initiate action in this regard.” The statement contained 11 signatures, one of which was Jamal’s, and one thumb impression. The other signatures belonged to Harkishan Singh—Jamal and Ali’s employer—Gurcharan Singh, two other migrant workers employed by Harkishan Singh and seven other locals. Three of these locals were from the same village as Ravinder,Kang. No first information report was filed for Ali’s death.

“The police did a basic enquiry and made a report of unnatural sudden death under section 174 of CrPC [Code of Criminal Procedure], since according to them there was no negligence attributable to the driver,” Aggarwal explained to me. Section 174 of the CrPC states that should the police find that a person “has committed suicide, or has been killed by another or by an animal or by machinery or by an accident, or has died under circumstances raising a reasonable suspicion that some other person has committed an offence,” the police officer must inform a magistrate. The officer can then conduct a special inquest in the presence of two witnesses, during which he or she must examine the body and file a report noting the apparent cause of death, wounds, marks on the body, and so on. However, Aggarwal claims that the police did not follow the standard operating procedure for an accident case before concluding that Ali’s death was an “unnatural sudden death.” “Section 174 is attracted when the preliminary enquiry conducted by the police does not even reveal allegations of a cognizable crime under IPC,” he told me. “There is [sic] no MLC (medico-legal case) report and blood-alcohol test of the driver, and we have no details regarding his license or insurance. The police did not even impound the car for mechanical inspection which, is mandatory for all road accident cases.”

The police records also included an undated “compromise statement”—a settlement agreement between Surjit Singh—Ravinder’s father who is the owner of the car—and Mohammed Jamal. This settlement notes that a compensation of Rs 60,000 was given by “the first party [Surjit] to the second party [Jamal].” The document also states that the driver of the car was not Ravinder Singh, but Surjit. The compromise statement was signed by nine witnesses including Harkishan and Kuldeep, the sarpanch of Chhokran village. It concludes, “[B]oth the parties are mutually settled . . . there is no dispute left.”

On 7 September, at Aggarwal’s office in Adarsh Nagar, Delhi, I met Abul Latif, Ali’s maternal uncle who is a contractor based in Delhi, and Ali’s father, Anamul Haq, a farmer, who had just arrived from Bihar. It was Latif who, on visiting the village after Ali’s death, had suggested that Ali’s family pursue the case further. “I was at home one night and a village boy came and informed us about [the death of] Sabir [Ali]. My wife fainted—she is still traumatised.” Haq recounted. “He was the youngest of our five children, and had never left home for work before.” I told Haq that Jamal had identified himself to the police as Ali’s cousin. “No, he is not related,” Haq said, “But he’s from Chhagelia too.”  He then told me that he had received only around Rs 20,000 out of the Rs 60,000 mentioned in the raazinama—the compromise. “Jamal said [sic] rest was spent on getting the body to our village, which arrived three or four days after the accident.” On hearing that only a third of the compensation had made its way to Haq, Latif and other villagers decided to pursue the matter further. Haq and Latif visited the police station in Punjab and collected the case documents. Soon after, Latif contacted Aggarwal, who agreed to take on the case.

A tubewell near the fields owned by Harkishen Singh, near Chhokran village in Punjab. It is common practice for migrant labourers to live inside these structures. ISHAN MARVEL

On 27 February 2014, Aggarwal drafted a letter to National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on behalf of Haq, requesting a departmental enquiry for the registration of an FIR. In response, the NHRC directed the senior superintendent of police for SBS Nagar, Snehdeep Sharma, to look into the matter. On 8 July 2014, Sharma sent a reply back to Aggarwal, saying, “The enquiry officer [Sharma] made all efforts by making calls to the complainant [Haq] who didn’t response for these calls [sic].” On 20 March 2015, Aggarwal once again drafted a reply to the NHRC, in which Haq refuted Sharma’s claims of having tried to contact him. “I never gave the police any phone number, because I don’t have a phone,” Haq later told me. In the letter, Aggarwal also requested the NHRC to conduct a “proper enquiry” and help his client win an “appropriate compensation.”

The NHRC replied to Aggarwal’s letter on 22 July, stating, “The allegations of the complainant are serious in nature which requires an impartial enquiry.” Thus, an enquiry was initiated through district Rupnagar and Haq was asked to report at the office of superintendent of police (SP), “head quarter [sic]” on 12 September.

On that day, Latif, Haq and I left Delhi for Punjab at around 9 am. We reported at the SP’s office in Rupnagar around four, where we met assistant sub-inspector Satpal Singh. While discussing the case with him, I asked Satpal why the standard operating procedure was not followed in this case. He told me that the investigation did not occur due to Jamal’s testimony, and the fact that the driver took Ali to the hospital. “The police had no reason to not believe Jamal,” Satpal said.  He also claimed to have no knowledge of the raazinama or of the fact that Jamal wasn’t Ali’s legal guardian, or even a relative. He told me that “the police did not make the compromise,” and that it was negotiated by the Chhokran panchayat.

Thereafter, Haq and Latif left for Delhi, while I boarded a bus to Nawanshahr, SBS Nagar that took me across the Satluj. As I got down at the main chowk of Nawanshahr, I noticed a sign for the popular Hindi daily, Punjab Kesari. I walked over to the office and introduced myself to Manoranjan Kalia, a special correspondent for the paper. He recalled another death of a migrant—a Nepalese woman named Chandani—that had occurred in Nawanshahr around three months back. “The police called it a suicide and filed a Section 174 report, but reports in Ajit [a Punjabi daily] and [Punjab] Tribune claimed it was a murder,” he said. When I told him that I intended to visit Rahon police station, around ten kilometres away, Kalia advised me against it. “Go in the morning, right now they’d have started drinking and you won’t get any information,” he recommended, before adding, “That’s Punjab police for you!”

The next day, I reached Rahon police station at around 11 am. The constable Manoj Kumar informed me that the officers that had handled the case, sub-inspector Gurdayal Singh and assistant sub-inspector Hardeep Singh, had been transferred, before commenting, “It was [Ali’s] own fault, what could we do?” He gave me Gurdayal and Hardeep’s phone numbers. Over these calls, Gurdayal tried to convince me that Ali’s had been a hit-and-run case with no witnesses, while Hardeep refused to comment.

Later that day, I spoke to Ravinder over the phone. He confirmed to me that he was driving the car alone at around 10 am, on his way to Rahon. He too repeated the account from the statements—that Ali had looked “neither left nor right.” I asked him about the raazinama. He told me that the police and the panchayat had negotiated it, and “enquiry officer Hardeep Singh bhi tha”—Hardeep was also present. Ravinder said that Jamal told him that he was Ali’s cousin. “We thought he [Ali] was a poor guy, so Harkishan, I and some other labourers collected [Rs] 60,000 and gave it to Jamal and asked him to take Ali’s body back to his village,” he continued. “Humko kya paata woh jhooth bol raha tha?”—how could we have known that Jamal was lying?

In 2004, the Punjab government released a human development (HD) report that included a chapter titled “Migrant Labour: Problems of the Invisible.” Among other things, this chapter stated, “Since the migrant labourer is considered an ‘outsider’ in a cultural, linguistic and class sense, the focus is always on ‘the migrant as a problem’, rather than the ‘problems of the migrant’. In a state from where pioneers and entrepreneurs have migrated, settled, and contributed to the economies of many countries, domestic migrant labourers deserve far better treatment.” Further, it states: “the migrant worker is at the lowest level of the industrial class structure,” and that “migrants have not been registered as voters in Punjab,” and have consequently “not been allowed to develop any stakes in the area, nor are they taken into consideration during planning and governance processes.”

These points became amply clear when I visited Dana Mandi at the behest of Raj Maurya from UP who was also the pradhan (chief) of a group of migrant workers. Situated across Nawanshahr railway station and considered part of Nawanshahr, Dana Mandi is a small settlement of migrant workers that is known for its grain warehouses. As soon as I crossed the tracks, the townscape changed drastically. There were shrubs and bare plants with dusty leaves; children played in the dirt, while women sat in a group at the edge of the road, cooking. Along the way, Maurya had informed me, “There are around 100 shops at Dana Mandi, and 30,000 to 40,000 workers. Each shop has a thekedaar”—contractor—“who handles its workers. Some of the shops have as many as 80 workers crammed inside.” He told me that their job was to process all the grain—such as maize, wheat and rice—measure it into sacks, and load the sacks into trucks for transportation. “We usually make Rs 200-300 a day, but it’s uncertain—there has been no incoming grain for the past two days, so we earned nothing.” Maurya continued, “Our group [of around 25 workers] lives in two rooms, and sometimes we work for 24 hours at a stretch.” It was a hard life, Maurya admitted, but it was still preferable to working for landlords or at sugar mills back home for a sum of Rs 100 or Rs 150 a day.

The report perhaps had incidents such as this in mind: “Harassment and extortion by police, other departments such as railways, post office and antisocial elements at the workplace, in ‘workers’’ [sic] residential colonies and during the journey are serious problems faced throughout the cycle of migration;” and that “the interests of migrant labourers are often sacrificed” since “there are grievances that the leadership usually favours local people.” It also claimed “trade unions have tried to campaign on these issues but the trade union movement remains weak in Punjab. One of the main reasons for this could be that workers are totally helpless and completely at the mercy of employers.”

The situation seems to have changed very little since the report was published; over the past few years, there have been several reports of clashes between Sikh locals and migrants, including a riot in Ludhiana in 2009. The HD report states, however, that migrants continue to come to Punjab because of its wages which are “double of that offered in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,” and that the work conditions are “perhaps a great deal better” than in their home states.

Dana Mandi, a village in Nawanshahr, Punjab. Many migrant workers reside and work in the grain shops in Dana Mandi. ISHAN MARVEL

On the bus journey to Chandigarh, I spoke to a fellow passenger, another migrant worker. Avinash was a 22-year-old from Rohtas district, Bihar who worked in Kurali, near Chandigarh for close to Rs 7000 a month. He was on his way back to his village for a visit. He told me that he had first come to Ludhiana to look for work in 2012, but had been duped. The man he had given money to find him a job got into a drunken brawl instead. Avinash and this man were taken into custody by the police and beaten up. “I was detained at Lakkar Pur police station and Ludhiana central jail for about one-and-a-half months. That’s how I understood how things work here,” Avinash recalled. He told me that he never returned to Ludhiana; “Ekdum kachra jagah, factory mazdooron ka bura haalat hai—It’s a terrible place, and the conditions of the factory workers is miserable.” As we parted ways at Chandigarh bus stand, he asked, “Do you think I could find a job in Delhi? I’m 10th pass—I’ll do anything.”