By Aditi Saraswat:
Let us face it, beautiful, symmetrical faces and bodies ‘sell‘. They are more appealing to us, and advertising has us by our ‘natural‘ predilections there. So when cement company UltraTech’s advertisement titled ‘Build Beautiful‘ is aired, and I see the chiseled midsections on many a tanned Adonis’, the faraway looks and postmodern-bohemian clothing, it is a scopophilic feast. But I squirm in my seat and dash to the laptop to write about it. Why?
They are not the beautiful people sashaying down the construction site with ramp walk-perfection like in the advertisement, instead they are swarthy, with burnt skins taut over their rib cages, part of one of the most exploited labouring classes of this country. We, the ‘young urbanites’, are well acquainted with them: they are an integral ingredient in India’s great development saga which was unfolding as we were growing up, and many of us have seen our own houses being built by them.
Our media is inundated with images which are perfect, sanitized and ideal. Public discourse and debates over what effects these images have on us as individuals and as a society, have been critical and are on the rise. But there is a need to look beyond the aesthetic erasures which these advertisements engender. Each time our media chooses to dispassionately gloss over the scabs and strains of the poor, the myth being forwarded is one of ‘shining India’. But does this India shine for the estimated 30 million construction workers who are compelled to leave their homes and migrate to a harsh metropolis where they face abuse and oppression?
Firstly, the sector is highly unorganized, making most labourers insecure about their daily work and income. Due to their inability to sustain themselves from one day to the next, they agree to whatever conditions and wages their contractors propose. In India, as in many developing nations, the mix of formal and informal markets of labour makes the construction sector a rather curious one. Big public projects do require tender filling and monitoring, but also employ casual labour widely. Formality, doused in informality. Herein lies the opportunity to exploit.
The Indian Labour Organization‘s survey based on India’s construction workers shows that an alarming 165 out of every 1,000 workers are injured on the job, the highest percentage in the world. Moreover, unskilled labourers who are involved in masonry, are often malnourished children below the age 14, pregnant mothers who work come rain or scorching heat, and old people who are not unlike the burnt bricks they spent a lifetime lifting, and will die nameless deaths outside government hospitals they could not buy a seat in.
Yes, 30 million- which is an estimate by the way, is a big number. And yes, there are labour unions, but they represent a miniscule fraction of the total number. For a sector which contributes roughly 8% to the Indian GDP, and is ninth largest in the world, construction is not just highly unrewarding, it is a dangerous, life threatening industry to work in. So are we allowed, as consumers and producers of media, to discount these lives? Should we be erasing them from our screens and memories, for ephemeral aesthetic pleasures?