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India: Playing games with the construction workers

by Jayati Ghosh, 10 June 2009

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(Source: Deccan Chronicle, June 9th, 2009)

It has now been officially announced: the Commonwealth Games in 2010 are definitively identified as the prestige project of the near future, to be the pride of Delhi and the country, a reflection of our economic progress and showcase of our future potential.

Various ministers at the central and state level have declared the completion of construction work for the games to be their top priority. New and ongoing construction work — at various games sites, for the expanding Delhi Metro, the extensions to the airport, new hotels and malls planned to open before the games — is to be speeded up.

But meanwhile, what of the workers who are actually engaged in this construction, the ones who will finally produce this anticipated triumph? Are the same ministers and policy makers concerned to make sure that their living and working conditions are safe, adequate, or even minimally humane? Unfortunately, as is only too often the case in India, policy obsession with results does not translate even partially into concern about the condition of those who labour to produce those results.

It was suggested in the Delhi Human Development Report 2006 that there were around two-three lakhs construction workers in Delhi. However, recent construction activity has caused a massive increase in numbers, and currently they are estimated to be between eight-ten lakhs workers. Many — indeed most — of these workers are recent migrants, brought in by contractors for the current or earlier projects, and therefore without any of the advantages of local residence or secure rights within the city.

The vast majority of construction workers in Delhi are men: the increasing mechanisation of construction work has led to a sharp decline in female participation, so that, ironically, as the work has become less physically arduous and demanding, it has tended to exclude women workers. Where they are employed at construction sites, women workers tend to be slotted in at the lowest level, for example in lifting and carrying head loads of bricks and mud.

Despite the crucial importance of this work for the urban planners in Delhi, there has been little or no action taken to ensure decent conditions of work or life for the workers involved in it. This is not because of the lack of a proper legal or administrative framework: at least on paper, Delhi’s construction workers are supposedly well served. In 1996, after a prolonged struggle, two national laws were passed by Parliament: the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, and the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996. In Delhi, this was finally notified six years later as the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Rules, 2002.

This in turn required the formation of the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board (with the unwieldy acronym DBOCCWWB), which was also constituted in September 2002. This board is supposed to ensure that the law is fully implemented, which involves among other things, the registration of all construction workers and provision of social security benefits to workers on the basis of a cess collected for that purpose.

Despite all this legal and administrative process, precious little has actually happened to benefit workers on the ground. The board meets rarely and lacks the administrative staff to actually do any real work. In any case, because the board is effectively under the Labour Commissioner of Delhi, and there have been numerous changes in the occupant of this position, the functioning of the board depends crucially on the willingness and ability of the Labour Commissioner to promote it. And this has been both variable and spasmodic.

As a result, so far the results have been negligible. The registration of construction workers has been tardy, partial and inadequate, and many, if not most, workers are still not registered. Even those who had registered earlier find that their registration has not been renewed. Meanwhile, the benefits of registration — including temporary ration cards for use in Delhi, pensions and social security, access to health and life insurance, scholarships for children, and so on — are, therefore, simply not available.

Take just one example: In November 2007, the chief minister of Delhi distributed some temporary ration cards to newly-registered construction workers amid much fanfare. But thereafter the allocation of ration cards completely dried up and temporary ration cards have still not been issued even to the registered workers, although this is essential for the workers’ families to survive in the context of rapidly rising food prices. Similarly, the board approved the promise of scholarships of Rs 100 per month to two school-going children of registered construction workers in February 2008. But finally less than 20 such scholarships were provided, and those too were given only after schools had closed for summer vacations.

In the circumstances, with no apparent benefits of registration at all, construction workers fell less inclined to bother to register at all. Since the cess collected is lying unused, it may even be diverted to other uses that are not even sanctioned by the law. For example, there is an outlandish proposal to create “holding areas” to house migrant workers, in which tenements would be created to house migrant workers in separate hostels for men and women. While this may benefit the building lobbies in the city, it is hard to think how it could possibly benefit the workers.

There are other concerns about working conditions, not only the wages but also the basic safety norms and procedures in place, as some recent accidents have demonstrated. This has become even harder to check because of new restrictions such as fencing off and closing sites to the public and to inspection.

All this will not change without concerted public mobilisation and action. Is it too much to ask the citizens of Delhi to fight for the basic rights of workers who are building them all this fancy new infrastructure?