Monday, April 6, 2009

Chinese Throng India’s Countryside

The Business Standard reports how Chinese companies that earn contracts to construct steel and power plants are also needing to construct villages for the Chinese workers they’re importing as wel.

Pradeep Gooptu / New Delhi April 5, 2009

Chinese companies bagging contracts to build steel and power plants in India are constructing small townships to house their workers.

Little ‘Chinatowns’ are springing up at different locations in India as more and more Chinese companies bag contracts to build steel and power plants in the country.

“We have executed, for a major secondary steel company, a township for 2,000-odd Chinese workers at a location in Jharkhand, where they would be erecting, commissioning and operating a combined steel and power unit,” the chairman of a leading architecture and civil engineering firm told Business Standard.

“The quarters are quite spartan, with basic sleeping and recreation rooms, and shower ranges and attached toilet units, but with the requisite engineering to permit a large number of people to use the facilities simultaneously,” added the architect.

He said it was the largest such township to be built in the country and the standards and designs were different and much closer to the Western designs than similar complexes built for Indian workers at offsite project locations.

While the steel company refused to be identified, or to name the Chinese party (saying it was commercially sensitive information), the chief financial officer (CFO) of the company confirmed that the Jharkhand unit would be using Chinese technology and rely on a core manpower team from that country to operate at the levels of efficiency promised by the Chinese equipment supplier. “We understand that the Chinese government has unofficially told their equipment suppliers that if they desired to draw support from government agencies like their export financing institutions, they would do well to use Chinese workers at offsite locations instead of using local workers as it would support jobs and families in their country,” said the CFO.

He said he estimated 3,500 Chinese workers were in East India alone, and another couple of thousand more in other locations in the country. Such residential zones for Chinese workers were coming up at three locations in West Bengal, with as many as five plants being set up using technology from the communist nation.

When contacted, two Chinese supervisors with English-speaking skills serving at projects in Bengal, said while they had problems with the quality and speed of work done by Indian workers, they found the working and living conditions comparable to the Chinese facilities.

“We find many of the foods we prefer and have collectively hired domestic staff from our country, while 60-70 of us have moved our families to Kolkata as well,” said Jin Bao, one of the two engineers. Chinese contractors acquired a formidable reputation after the EPC firm, Dongfang Electric Corporation, won at Rs 2,750 crore, the contract for the West Bengal Power Development Corporation’s 2x300 Mw Sagardighi coal-based power plant in the Murshidabad district.

The first Sagardighi unit began power generation in end-2008 with power load factor of 80-90 per cent, while the second unit’s synchronisation is due.

When contacted, sources in the Chinese consulate in Kolkata refused to comment.

Foreign teams working at projects is not new — Russians worked to build the Bokaro Steel Plant and some ordnance factories, the Germans set up the Bhilai and Rourkela steel plants and the British built the Durgapur steel plant in the past.

However, these expatriates usually lived in mixed areas in bungalows comparable to those provided to Indian officers, and not usually in separate enclaves. Besides, they were usually highly skilled supervisory staff and not expatriate blue-collar workers completely manning project erection responsibilities.

Interestingly, a secondary steel project in Bengal recently acquired sudden notoriety after 70-odd Chinese engineering workers allegedly beat up Indian workers following sharp differences over the quality and integrity of the work executed by local workers like fabricators and welders.

The conflict was so violent that the local police had to intervene, hospitalise a group of Indian workers and arrest some Chinese supervisors on specific assault charges, said a highly-placed bureaucrat in the West Bengal government. But he added that he did not expect such an incident to slow down the rush of Chinese project teams coming to India.