INDIA is not a society known for its concern for the conditions of its workers. Most of the men and women whose toil ensures our much-touted economic growth are more or less invisible to the elite and middle classes even when these men and women produce essential goods and services right under their noses. And so we are largely indifferent to changes in their wages and working conditions and only intermittently concerned about their basic safety.
Take the case of construction workers. Their numbers have recently multiplied in the capital city of Delhi because of the rush to complete a large number of new projects (at the various Games sites, for the expanding Delhi Metro, extensions to the airport, new hotels and malls, and so on) before the Commonwealth Games to be held in September 2010. The Delhi Human Development Report of 2006 suggested that there were around two to three lakh construction workers in Delhi, but current estimates suggest anywhere between eight and 10 lakh workers. It is hard to know for sure how many there are because most of them are recent migrants brought in by contractors, and the system of registration of such workers has been lax and ineffective.
It takes a major accident such as the collapse of a concrete pillar at a construction site for the metro in south Delhi to bring the medias attention to the inadequate safety procedures at the various sites. Yet the concern is still mainly for passers-by and local residents rather than for the workers, who are most at risk. In the past year, at least 43 deaths and 96 injuries of workers at construction sites have been officially reported. The actual numbers are likely to be much larger because many accidents and casualties never get reported, and even workers are reluctant to talk about them.
After the unfortunate experience of exploitation of construction workers before the Asian Games held in Delhi in 1982, some citizens of Delhi wanted to make sure this did not happen again.
The Commonwealth Games 2010-Citizens for Workers, Women and Children (CWG-CWC), a coalition of Delhi-based organisations and individuals, was formed to monitor the conditions of construction workers before the Games and to mobilise to ensure their rights.
Despite constant efforts to highlight the inadequate safety provisions and the poor working arrangements at sites and the dire living conditions of workers, the coalition generally meets with official resistance and public apathy. This is despite the fact that, at least on paper, Delhis 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 DBOCWWB), which was also constituted in September 2002. This board is supposed to ensure that the law is fully implemented, and its work involves, among other things, the enforcement of rigorous safety norms, the registration of all construction workers and the provision of social security benefits to them on the basis of a cess collected for that purpose.
Despite all this legal and administrative process, precious little has actually happened on the ground to benefit workers. The board rarely meets and lacks the administrative staff to do any real work. In any case, because the board is effectively under the Labour Commissioner of Delhi, its functioning depends crucially on the willingness and ability of the Commissioner to promote it. And this has been both variable and spasmodic as there have been numerous occupants of this position.
Therefore, the results have been negligible thus far. The Act specifically provides for safety procedures that need to be followed at every site with respect to safety equipment, training, inspection and inquiry. There are supposed to be safety committees with worker representation and qualified safety officers for every establishment employing 500 or more workers. But none of these provisions of the Act has ever been followed in any of the construction sites.
Meanwhile, workers complaints about the quality and safety of the machinery and material they use are regularly ignored even after major accidents have exposed the truth of their arguments. In addition, the provision of basic facilities on site as mandated by the law (such as drinking water, toilets and creches) has been completely inadequate.
Other measures that are supposed to benefit workers have also not been implemented. The registration of construction workers has been tardy, partial and inadequate, and most workers are still not registered. Even those who registered earlier find that their registration has not been renewed. Workers are forced to pay an amount every month simply to remain registered, but 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 simply not available.
To take just one example, in November 2007, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit distributed some temporary ration cards to newly registered construction workers amid much fanfare. But once the initial blaze of publicity had been achieved, allocation of ration cards completely stopped. In fact, temporary ration cards have still not been issued to the vast majority of registered workers although this is essential for the survival of their families in the context of rapidly rising food prices.
Similarly, the promise of scholarships of Rs.100 a month to two school-going children of registered construction workers was approved by the DBOCWWB in February 2008. But finally less than 20 such scholarships were given, and that too only after schools had closed for the summer vacation.
In the circumstances, with no apparent benefits at all to registration, construction workers feel much less inclined to register. And that in turn means that the cess that has been collected is lying unused.
More than Rs.300 crore has been collected, but less than Rs.10 lakh has been spent on three creches for 150 children and on accident compensation and life insurance premia for less than 100 workers. This fund is supposed to be used to ensure the provision of maternity and medical benefits, pension for disabled and old workers and dependants, accident and death compensation, financial assistance for the education of children, marriage assistance, and so on. Surely no one can argue that these are no longer necessary for the workers; yet the money is lying unspent.
But of course all that money lying around attracts other bees around this potential honey pot. So now proposals are being made to divert the money, in a completely unacceptable manner, to uses that are not sanctioned by the law and that effectively subsidise the contractors and builders without providing any benefit to the workers themselves.
The major new idea that has been suggested by some officials to use up this money is an outlandish proposal to create holding areas to house migrant workers: temporary tenements would be created at a distant location, on panchayat lands, to house migrant workers in separate hostels for men and women.
It is proposed to spend about Rs.80 crore from the Cess Fund on such holding areas, in a cost-sharing arrangement in which private parties have to cough up only a quarter of the total costs and money meant for the workers will account for half.
This proposal is absolutely amazing for several reasons. First, it completely absolves the contractors of any responsibility for housing workers even though such housing is a legal requirement and is even built into the costs of all these construction projects. This not only forgives those contractors who deliberately flout the law but also effectively subsidises them further under the pretext of helping workers.
In any case, the number of intended beneficiaries is between 6,000 and 9,000, only a tiny fraction of the actual number of migrant construction workers who need housing. And they are proposed to be housed in three-storey barracks that flout all building bylaws because there will be no space for essential facilities such as community kitchens, community toilets, creches, and so on. Workers will have to travel great distances to reach their construction sites. Meanwhile, their families will be broken up because men and women are to be accommodated separately.
So what is the point of moving workers to these tenements in far-flung locations at great inconvenience to them? It is hard not to smell something fishy in all this because it essentially involves a change in the land use norms. The chances are very high that the holding areas will eventually be turned into slums without proper urban amenities and pass into private hands. While this may benefit the building lobbies in the city, it is hard to think how it could possibly benefit the workers.
When this proposal came up before the DBOCWWB, it was objected to and put on hold but it is reliably suggested that officials are going ahead with this completely unacceptable plan. And unless there is sufficient public outcry over this and the denial of the basic legal rights to workers, it is likely to become a fait accompli.
The irony is that all this exploitation and misuse is being carried out in the name of finishing projects before the Commonwealth Games. Yet, the official mandate of the Commonwealth Games Federation is Humanity, Equality, Destiny. Sadly, the officials who are so anxious to ensure that the country presents a shining face to the world during these Games do not seem to be aware that the process they have chosen is already making a travesty of its basic intent.