The cost of road building

The following tale about migration and murder was told to me by Fulgari Ram who owns the water-powered mill besides the Saal river about 15 kilometres from Chamba town. On a wet afternoon we sat on Fulgari Ram’s veranda surrounded by his grandchildren and he explained to me why working away from home was a dangerous way to make a living. The story starts before Indian Independence when a Raja still ruled in the Princely State of Chamba. In those days, Fulgari Ram explains, no-one worked for cash: ‘we did shepherding and farming – just one crop per year’. With meat and milk from their goats, wool from the sheep and maize from their fields, the households of the Saal valley were almost entirely self-sufficient. But, even in this remote Himalayan valley, change was not far off. News came that paid work was available building roads in neighbouring Kangra District. Fulgari Ram left Chamba with some friends in search of cash and adventure. He takes up the story in Nurpur which was then part of British ruled Punjab:

‘There was a need for lots of labour and the pay was 4 annas a day [1/4 of a rupee]. We were doing manual work making the bridge over the Chakki river. A big foundation [thaura] was erected but it collapsed. They tried again and again it collapsed. Then somebody decided that a sacrifice was required to make the bridge strong. First the contractor sacrificed a sheep, then a goat, then a buffalo. But still the thaura didn’t stand. The only thing that would secure the bridge was the head of a man! They found one poor fellow who had come seeking work. They persuaded him to come into the forest with promises of food and drink. When he began eating the contractor came up from behind and cut his throat. I was an eyewitness. I won’t tell you anymore details because there are children present and it was terrible. I ran from the forest to find me friends and, without stopping, we ran all the way home’.

Back in the Saal valley, Fulgari Ram and his friends and relations returned to working their fields and shepherding their flocks of sheep and goats up to the high pastures each summer. Fulgari Ram’s tale is hard to verify but, wide-eyed and pale, he stands by every word. Clearly the story is important: I’ve heard several variations of it (including one where the victim was buried alive) as explanations for why men from the Gaddi community have, until recently, been reluctant to seek paid work as migrant wage labourers.


It took six hours and three buses to reach Bhairagarh – the final village on the Sach pass road over the Pir Pangal range. From Bhairagarh I walked with Prakaso a further ten kilometres to Kalaban where a tractor at the side of the road marked the site of the road-builders’ camp. Behind the tractor a blue tarpaulin covered a store of picks, crow-bars and heavy hammers. Just below the road we found a rough stone hut, big enough to sleep ten people. The roof was made of timber planks and a yellow tarp held down by large stones. To one side a kitchen space has been established from another tarp roof and a couple of aluminium sheets as a wind-break. Monnu, the camp cook, had already got the fire burning. Hot chai is ready for the workers when they return. Aside from a single Nepali labourer all are from the Saal valley – Prakaso’s brother, two of his cousins, an uncle and other friends and relatives. They drink, some smoke and Chaman Singh doses in the afternoon sun. There is no milk so we have our tea black – ‘kalaban, kala-chai’. Prakaso laughs and adds ‘kala dhan’ – black money.

From the camp at Kalaban the Sach pass appears close enough to touch. The forest ends a little way along the road which then zig-zags up a steep and barren slope before cutting through the snow-peaks in a ‘v’ shaped notch. Once the sun dropped behind the ridge it because very cold very quickly. We huddled around the campfire to eat dal and rice, our legs were burned by the flames while our heads and backs froze. My sleeping space faced the open door of the hut. I woke up several times in the night and was surprised by how quiet everything was – no grunting or snoring. When the first light crept in I looked over to a row of bodies lying with blankets covering their heads. They awoke slowly, unwilling to leave their shelter until the fire was restarted. As the sun flooded the valley with light we ate parathas and drank more black tea. A book was produced in which the roll call of the day’s workers would be recorded. With no supervisor present (the contractor visited only occasionally to monitor progress) there was no incentive to hurry back to work. It took a while but eventually they walked back to the buttress they were tasked with constructing. Mahinder took a lump hammer to a large boulder which Gindero used a metal pole to pry open. They explained that they were building a buttress to hold up the road on a section where the hillside is particularly steep. Two walls of rock enclosed by wire have been established and they are now filling the gap between these cages. Chaman Singh began to throw rocks in the general direction of the trench. The Gaddi men at Kalaban were aware that this new work replaced but also replicated the nomadic traditions of their grandfathers: leaving home to live for months at a time in remote Himalayan locations where the work was hard and physical but not without reward.


I wanted a group photo and asked whether I should take it in the camp or up on the road. Road was the unanimous choice and the road builders arranged themselves around the tractor with Mahinder climbing on board and miming that he was driving. Did they like this place? Prakaso said he liked ‘wherever there is work’. After a pause Monnu said he liked peaceful places and good scenery. All agreed that maza (fun) is to be had at Kalaban but it is paisa (money) only that brings them here. For a normal working day I was told they would relieve 500rs with extra pay if they worked past 5pm. Travel and food were taken care of my the contractor. Most of these men have been working at Kalaban for 40 days and were expecting to be paid at the end of the month. They said they would be returning home soon. The buttress was nearly finished and they were required in the fields to help with the maize harvest. Besides, snow was in the air and it was becoming too cold to continue.

Jammu and Kashmir lies on the other side of this range. Violence has, on occasion, spilled over the state line and onto the Chamba side. Before I left Kalaban I went to look at a memorial on the edge of the road-builders camp. On the night on the 2nd of August 1998 militants from Kashmir has slipped over a remote pass. They rounded up the labourers then staying at Kalaban, tied their hands and then shot them. Twenty-six people were killed and eight injured, the names of the dead were recorded on the black obelisk together with their home villages.


Prakaso, Monnu, Mahinder and the others are, like Fulgari Ram, all Gaddis from Chamba District in Himachal Pradesh. Gaddis are a Scheduled Tribe best known as shepherds of huge flocks of sheep and goats. So how did they make the transition from pastoral nomadism to travelling to places like Kalaban and staying weeks at a time undertaking hard physical labour to build roads?  Some might point to the state seizure of forests, the repressive regulations imposed by the Forest Department, and an official policy bias in favour of settled agriculture. In fact, the explanation was less simple. Prakaso’s father, like many others, had benefited from land redistribution policies in the 1970s. The government of Himachal Pradesh had offered them the chance to purchase the land that they farmed. To raise the money needed many Gaddis liquidated their flocks. Another pull factor was employment on public works projects – repairing bridges, upgrading tracks and, on occasion, building roads in the vicinity of their home villages. But economic liberalisation brought an end to these arrangements: responsibility for road building passed from the Public Works Department to private contractors. Having abandoned their traditional nomadism, and with demographic growth and land fragmentation, the Gaddis in the Saal valley had little option but to accept the offer of ‘petty work’ – temporary, precarious, irregular and dependent on maintain a good relationship with contractor.

Over the last decade the main source of non-agricultural employment has shifted from the state to private contractors and an array of subcontractors. This system functions in ways that distance contractors from the actual work in ways which allow them to devolve responsibility for the pay and conditions of labourers. In the main, people work for registered subcontractors but in some cases this responsibility for organising labour is passed down to a local man who agrees a lump sum payment or a cut of the wages of those he recruits. This is who labourers negotiate wages with, who supervises their work on a day-to-day basis, and who they argue with when the promised wages are not paid. Prakaso had got the job through his brother-in-law who was employed as a driver for the Rajput labour contractor that had won the tender to do the ‘cage-work’ at Kalaban.

Though the labour contractor had promised to pay wages monthly it wasn’t until winter was almost over that he came through with the money (he blamed late payment from the prime contractor he subcontracted from). In his smart shoes the contractor refused to make the ten minute walk up the hill to deal with the men in their village. Instead Prakaso and the others who had been at Kalaban came down to the river, where, a little along from Fulgari Ram’s mill, they sat down to thrash out a deal. Negotiations took place over the course of an afternoon with the contractor reneging on his promise to pay for food and expressing doubt about the number of hours of overtime that Prakaso and his co-workers had recorded themselves as doing. The sun set and a fire was lit. Perhaps they should receive an extra day’s money for the time it was taking to finalise payment. Eventually an agreement was thrashed out – the basic daily rate of Rs. 350 was handed over but without the expected overtime. It wasn’t what they had been promised but everybody knew it was more than double the daily wages they could expect for manual labour closer to home. As Prakaso, Mohinder and Gindero made their way back to the village they felt cheated: ‘he killed us’. Later I asked Prakaso if he was happy with what he was paid: ‘fifty-fifty’.  Would he work for the same contractor again? ‘Yes – if he asks’.


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