India imports 15,000 Chinese laborers to build, teach infrastructure projects

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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 8:36 PM

In Chandankyari, India.

Perched precariously on scaffolding, several Chinese workers showed Indian laborers how to weld the shell of a blast stove at a steel plant construction. Step by step, the Indians absorbed the valuable skills needed to build a large, integrated factory from scratch in record time.

"I have worked on building four new steel plants in the last 10 years in China, and I am here to teach Indian workers to do the same," Hulai Xiong, 38, said about the construction site in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. "In China, we build very fast. Indian workers are slow and sometimes lazy. They are not familiar with modern industrial construction processes."

Clad in blue overalls, 1,600 Chinese supervisors, technicians and other laborers work at the 2,000-acre site. The $1.7 billion factory, which also relies on Chinese technology, employs 5,000 Indian workers.

Skilled Chinese workers are helping India expand its infrastructure at a frenetic pace, even as the two Asian giants compete for economic dominance.

Their presence in a nation of more than a billion people with staggering unemployment may appear incongruent. But the government says Indian workers lack the technical skilled needed to transform the country into a 21st-century economic powerhouse.

Until the gap is bridged, companies are relying on the expertise of Chinese workers to build mega infrastructure projects. Chinese workers have worked on ports, highways, power and steel plants in India. Chinese equipment and expertise have also been used in a crude oil refinery, a cable-supported bridge, the telecommunication networks and even the glass facade of the new airport terminal in New Delhi.

"India may be an IT superpower and producing thousands of doctors, lawyers and MBAs every year. But the biggest gap is in the availability of skilled electricians, carpenters, welders, mechanics and masons who can build mega infrastructure projects," said Raghav Gupta, president at Technopak, a consultancy that released a report on skill development last year. "Most of these workers have to be trained on the job. And that often delays the projects and makes it more expensive."

As the center of economic gravity shifts from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, analysts say, the world's two fastest growing economies will transfer even more technology and skills.


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