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With no safety net

Published : Jul 30, 2010 00:00 IST

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Those hit the hardest by the price rise are workers in the unorganised sector.

in Gurgaon and Delhi

THE sprawling network of roads, multi-lane flyovers, and swanky exteriors of offices of multinational companies overwhelm a person driving down the Delhi-Jaipur highway. On either side of it, towards and beyond the international and national airports, lies Gurgaon, a spectacle of state-of-the-art urban development and a symbol of industrialisation in Haryana. But beyond this facade is a different world. Thousands live here in the congested and inhospitable back lanes of the old city and in and around the erstwhile villages. Theirs are the hands that build the modern city and its residential complexes that house families with six-figure incomes.

Also invisible to the indiscriminate eye are the labour chowks where hundreds of people wait from the early hours of the day until sundown to be picked up for work. There are three such labour chowks in Gurgaon, which Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda aspires to transform into another Singapore. At one such labour chowk, called the Bhooteshwar Mandir chowk, Frontline met dozens of workers, some of them sitting with their tools, hoping that someone would alight from a vehicle and call them for work any work, even if it is back-breaking.

The workers, all migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, have little choice but to wait, braving the weather. At any time of day, there are dozens of them huddled together under an occasional tree. There is no shed for them to wait in or water to drink, let alone toilet facilities. Women suffer the most, as they are forced to use open spaces as toilets.

Seema Devi, a jobseeker from Hardoi district in Uttar Pradesh, is in her early forties. Hungry, tired and wet from the rain, she broke down on being asked to narrate her problems. One day, after several days of waiting, a contractor offered her work as a beldar (doing earthwork at a construction site) at Rs.250 a day. But at the end of an arduous day, all she got was Rs.100.

This when the revised minimum wages in Haryana with effect from February 1 has been Rs.4,214 a month, or Rs.162 a day, for unskilled work; Rs.167 and Rs.172 a day for two categories of semi-skilled work; Rs.177 and Rs.182 for skilled work; and Rs.187 a day for highly skilled work.

Almost every worker Frontline spoke to had similar stories of exploitation to tell. Some said there were times when contractors beat them up for being assertive. Now, adding to the woes of the hapless people was the rise in the prices of essential items. What shall I eat and feed my children? asked Seema Devi in a choked voice.

Ironically, there is also not enough work to find. Shahbuddin, a painter in his mid-fifties, hails from Rajasthan. He said the workers considered it fortunate if they got work for 15 days in a month. There are too many workers and not enough work. We will be lucky if one of us gets picked up though we all try hard to catch the eye of the contractor and are willing to work at any rate quoted by him, he said.

Raghunandan from Siwan district in Bihar is also a painter. He pointed to the cesspools formed after a spell of rain. All this will lead to malaria and other diseases. Our children will suffer from stomach-related diseases, and we will end up spending most of what we earn paying a doctor. Isn't the government supposed to do something about this? he asked.

Neeraj Pandey, in his early twenties, came from Faizabad district in Uttar Pradesh a month ago. After lifting 200 bags of cement weighing 50 kg each a few hours earlier, he was back at the labour chowk looking for more work. The contractor promised me Rs.350 but gave me only Rs.200. What can we do? We are outsiders, we have no rights, he said.

The outsiders

Outsiders in their own country, most of the workers share their cramped quarters with at least 10 others. It is with much difficulty that we are able to afford some sort of accommodation, but some sleep on the footpaths, said Udaiveer from Aligarh, pointing to a Rajasthani family sleeping on the pavement.

The biggest problem, Shahbuddin said, was the low wages for back-breaking work. I came to Gurgaon eight years ago. I was getting Rs.160 then. Today the official daily wage for a mistri [a skilled construction worker] is Rs.350, but we don't get anything near that amount, he said.

The workers see themselves as nobodies. The locals resent us, the shopkeepers look at us as vermin, and the police are there only to help the system in exploiting us further, he said.

The workers are not registered with any government office and their names do not figure in any official list; the employers preferred not to include their names in the muster rolls as this exempted them from paying minimum wages, or giving compensation to workers in cases of accidents or any kind of social security benefit.

None of the workers had any BPL (below poverty line) card that would entitle them to food rations at subsidised rates.

Prakash Sharma, who came from Alwar in Rajasthan recently, is prepared to do any kind of work. Many like him offer their services out of sheer necessity, knowing full well that the wages at the end of the day are uncertain.

It is estimated that around three lakh people are employed in the unorganised sector in Gurgaon alone. A large number of them are involved in the construction of roads and buildings; thousands of others work in the automobile sector and its ancillary units, in export houses, and in the IT sector. Additionally, there are autorickshaw drivers, cycle-rickshaw men and roadside vendors, who, like the others, suffer constant harassment at the hands of the police and the administration because they are obstacles to the beautification of the city.

The rise in the prices of essential commodities has broken the backs of these workers. A midday meal worker (there are an estimated 600-700 such workers, all women, in primary schools in the villages of Gurgaon) said that with the kind of income she had, it was becoming difficult even to afford the modest chapati, the staple in northern India.

In September 2007, the United Progressive Alliance government, in the Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Bill, included a proposal to fix a national minimum wage for all jobs, a demand that had emerged from the central trade unions. There are an estimated 369 million workers in the unorganised sector (NSSO 1999-2000) in India. The construction industry alone employs around 31 million workers, of whom 27 million are contract workers.

Nearly 80 million workers constitute the total contract labour market in the country. Of them, around three lakh people are in the organised sector. They are called the unorganised in the organised sector. During the recession in 2008, a Delhi-based industry body, the Construction Industry Development Council, estimated that nearly 180,000 unskilled and semi-skilled workers had lost their jobs in the housing sector alone.

The construction workers Frontline met had not heard of the decision in 2008 of the newly set up Labour Welfare Board on making a provision of Rs.75,000 towards insurance cover for each worker involved in building and construction works. They were not eligible for the welfare measure as they were not registered anywhere. Neither did any of them have any form of identification, for instance, a ration card.

None knew about the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, a national health insurance scheme launched two years ago for the unorganised sector which provides a cover of Rs.30,000 for hospitalisation and surgical expenses for workers in the sector. Targeted for the BPL category, it is said to have enrolled 60 million people in 22 States.

A 2005 report of the International Labour Organisation calls the unorganised sector in India the other India at work. According to it, this sector contributed 45 per cent of the country's national income and accounted for 93 per cent of the workforce but offered no protection against retrenchment or provided any social security. Calling them the ultimate entrepreneurs for their ability to sustain livelihoods with very little capital, the report said these workers lived and worked in abysmal conditions (The other India, Frontline, November 18, 2005).

There is no provision for housing for them either by the government or by the industrialists, said Satbir, district secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). He said nothing had been done by the Haryana Building and Other Construction Workers' Welfare Board for the health, education, safety or skill upgradation of the workers, as stipulated in the 1996 Central Act (The Building and other Construction Workers Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service Act). Is it so difficult to construct a shed for these workers? he asked.

The non-implementation of protective legislation has compounded the misery caused by price rise. Munni, a midday meal worker in Basai village, said the price rise was killing her. Frustrated at not finding work, her husband, a daily wage worker, had taken to drinking, and this worsened her problems. The rates for grinding wheat have doubled to Rs.2 from Re.1 a kilo, which we find difficult to afford, she said.

Her colleague, Sunita, is a widow with four daughters. She gets her widow pension, but has no BPL card. Her eldest daughter works in a garment unit in Gurgaon. Travelling up and down to the workplace costs her Rs.14 every day. Most of the time she walks back home through unlit, dangerous lanes to save Rs.7. The other day, she came home late, at 9-30 p.m., said a distraught Sunita, adding that for a poor person, even Rs.7 means a lot.

Midday meal workers are technically government employees as the fund comes from the Central government, but they are not treated as such. They get no minimum wage or social security benefit from the government. How can one manage with Rs.1,000? We put in six hours of work, cooking food, cleaning utensils and feeding children. We spend almost 12 hours outside our homes because of the commuting involved from our villages, said Munni.

There are some 200 units in the Wazirpur industrial area located in north Delhi. Each unit employs 20 to 25 people. When most of Delhi got de-industrialised, thanks to judicial interventions to make a pollution-free Delhi, many of the units were relocated. But some shut shop, leaving many workers high and dry. Though neighbouring the affluent Ashok Vihar, the industrial area has no proper roads or drainage and sanitation facilities. For want of proper toilet facilities, people defecate on either side of the lanes leading to the industrial units. The workers here live and work in such inhospitable surroundings.

Most of them live in rented accommodations, just like their counterparts in Gurgaon, sometimes 10 of them in a room as small as eight feet by ten feet. Rents for such holes are up to Rs.1,200 a month.

The minimum wages notified by the Delhi government in February are not implemented here. The official monthly wage rates are Rs.5,272 (unskilled), Rs.5,850 (semi-skilled) and Rs.6,448 (skilled). The daily wages for the same categories are Rs.203, Rs.225 and Rs.248 respectively. But most of the workers in Wazirpur are paid anywhere between Rs.2,800 and Rs.3,000.

The workers here have a subhuman existence, worse than insects, said Pradyutman Malakar, a local doctor. People come to his clinic for treatment of grave injuries as well as for minor cuts, which are common and for which the owners give as little as Rs.10 for treatment. The health centre closes at 5 p.m. Even in the mornings, they don't start working before 11 a.m. despite there being long queues of sick and ailing workers and their families, said Motilal, originally from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. I pay Rs.600 as rent and have been working for the last five years now, he said. A mistri, he gets only Rs.4,200 a month.

The majority of the workers have no BPL cards and are forced to buy essentials from the market. Kerosene costs Rs.35 a litre; we buy it in the black market for Rs.60 a litre. We cannot get cooking gas connections as we have no proof of identity, said Chandradhaari, also from Azamgarh.

Even the cheapest matar dal costs a lot now. Back home, we pay Rs.19 a kilo, but here it is Rs.24, he said, adding that eating arhar or toor dal was next to impossible given the current rates. They used to say in our village, Dal, roti khao, Prabhu ke gun gao' (eat dal and roti, be happy and sing praises of the Lord), but even affording that dal and roti is not easy anymore, said Motilal.

Surender from Sultanpur district in Uttar Pradesh said that six years ago he used to earn Rs.1,800 a month. Now it is Rs.3,600 (much less than the minimum wage). Forget dal, even vegetables are expensive. Potatoes cost Rs.10 a kilo, parval [a gourd popular in the north] costs Rs.32 a kilo and onions Rs.15. If we have full meals, there will be nothing left to send home to feed our families, he said. Pointing to his grey stubble, he said in a lighter vein, I do not shave every day. It used to cost me Rs.3; now it is Rs.10. I'll shave when I get my salary, which is on the tenth of every month. I'll have a haircut too then. If need be, I'll borrow some money from someone.

Manager Prasad, the leader of a trade union affiliated with the CITU, said that Provident Fund contributions of the workers were seldom deposited at the office concerned. In June, we mobilised the workers for a protest in front of the [Provident Fund] Commissioner's office. He said he would look into it in a month. We are still waiting, he said.

For much of the unorganised sector, this is going to be a long wait. The conditions of the unorganised class of workers are very much the same everywhere, depending on the extent to which the respective State government has responded in implementing the welfare measures under existing statutes. Ironically, it is worse in those States that boast high per capita incomes and high minimum wages.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 30, 2010.)

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