With the ISRO going into ‘hibernation’ due to the pandemic, and all major missions being delayed, hundreds of contract engineers and technicians working with the space agency are staring at a grim future. Over a 100 engineers and technicians working on contract with the Hyderabad-based Premier Explosives Limited (PEL) — which handles operations and maintenance of the Solid Propellant Plant at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC-Shar) — have reportedly been laid off in the last couple of days.

These employees were not paid salary since May.

In a communication sent to the employees, accessed by Express, PB Sudhir Singh, general manager at PEL, attributes the decision to a recommendation made by the Shar Central Level Review Committee.

Singh also said it was unclear when SDSC-Shar would revoke the decision to temporarily cut manpower. “Out of our total workforce, very few who have tested negative for COVID  are attending duty at the Solid Propellant Plant by staying in isolation, at a guest house in Sriharikota, away from their family,” says a letter sent by Singh to an engineer who has been working with the company for over a decade.

“The situation has turned so dire wherein both the employer and the employee cannot fulfil their contractual obligations.” “Also, without the consent of Shar, your organisation, PEL, will be unable to provide work. It is with a heavy heart that the management expresses its inability to pay salaries and to continue your employment. Going by the curtailed operational requirements, it is hard to guess a tentative date of restoring the original manpower.” Sudhir Singh did not respond to Express’ calls for direct comment on the issue. However, senior officials at the SDSC-Shar confirmed the development, attributing it to the “unprecedented situation”.

‘We Have To Now Work With Reduced Staff’

“We have to work with the reduced manpower till normalcy returns. Out of total 142 permanent staff, 88 are attending duty at Solid Propellant Plant. Currently, work on the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) is going on,” say the officials. The Solid Propellant Plant is a crucial piece of infrastructure, handling the GSLV Mk-III project. As per the official records accessed by Express, it employs a total of 552 employees — 142 permanent and 410 on contract. Of the contract staff, 394 are PEL employees.

Since the pandemic, total contractual employees with the Shar were capped at 254. It was further reduced to 200 following a spurt in cases inside Sriharikota and other ISRO residential colonies. Of them, just 106 were PEL employees. Which means, those who were not allotted work were left without pay.

The issue is not just about the Solid Propellant Plant. A company called Quess — which has 300 employees working with the Solid Propellant Space Booster Plant (SPROB) and Liquid Propellant Storage and Serving Facilities (LSSF) — is contemplating lay-offs. Quess, too, has not paid wages for the last two months.