On January 2, Babu Sahab, a construction worker fell to his death after falling from the scaffolding of an under-construction building in East Delhi’s Mayur Vihar. Sahab allegedly sought safety gear from his employers but was never provided any. Sahab’s story is also the story of India’s four to seven crore construction workers, who in the absence of adequate safety provisions, live life on the edge.
A couple of kilometres away from where Sahab died, I met Gopal Kohli, as he was perched on a beam on an under-construction building in Kotla village. He too, is without any safety gear. “Even if I take a safety belt with me, where will I attach it?“ he asks. “There is no place I can attach it. We have to just work with caution.”
There are detailed rules laid out for safety measures to be followed by employers and contractors, even in case of private constructions. But at smaller private constructions, which are not much under the scanner of the authorities, these rules are openly flouted.
Like Sahab, Kohli is also a migrant worker. He studied until eighth standard in a government school in Karuali, Rajasthan but had to start working to support his family. “Back then we had many aspirations – that we will turn out to be someone of importance, that we will study. Now, look at what we are doing,” he says when I ask him what he aspired to become, as a child.
“Our father didn’t earn much, and children had to be married off. I saw our situation and realised that I need to earn first, that we should have money. We have to take all these things into consideration, right?” he shares. Now all his aspirations are for his children. “The only thing I want is that they are able to study properly, whether they find a government or private job,” says Kohli, whose father was also a construction worker.
Unlike his father, Kohli first worked in a factory in the nearby district of Bharatpur. But soon he had no choice but to switch to construction because the wages didn’t suffice. The other workers he met suggested he would find better work and wages elsewhere. So, he travelled to Mathura and finally reached Delhi.
Now he is a daily wager, looking for work at a Labour Chowk after a project is complete. He has been working on the house he is building for some four days, after which he will be out of work for about two weeks until the centring (the wooden support structure) is dismantled. He and his friends from Karauli, who are working the building, will look for work with other contractors till then, or sit and wait.
Paid anything between 300 and 400 INR for nine to 10 hours of gruelling work a day (often in very harsh weather), 32-year old Kohli manages to earn about 10,000 to 15,000 INR per month. Of this, he pays 2000 INR as room rent. He sends his children to a government school so he can save some money, but he barely does. That’s why, he says, he has no bank account. “We don’t have any savings (to deposit in the bank),” he laughs.
When demonetisation hit, his friends say, they couldn’t find work either.
Unlike Kohli, 20-year old Muttibul, who hails from West Bengal, works on a larger construction site and lives in a makeshift shanty nearby with 40 other workers. He recounts that he wanted to become a teacher but had to drop out after third standard. “My brothers were very young and only our father used to work. But if only one person worked, we wouldn’t be able to survive, right? So I left school and started working,” he told me. A person in their school did become a teacher, he says, but adds that they were able to do it because they didn’t have to worry about arranging food for their family.
The way workers are treated in society is also something that hurts Muttibul. “We build these buildings but when it’s complete nobody is going to let us in,” Muttibul’s friend Suleiman says.
Neither Muttibul nor Gopal Kohli has heard of any registration with the Building and Construction Workers Welfare Board, which is the only government support for construction workers. That should not be a surprise, given many state governments themselves didn’t seem to have any clue about this Board for almost a decade after 1996, when the law mandating the constitution of the Board was passed.
In fact, it took several orders from the Supreme Court before many states even constituted the Board. The first one was set up in Kerala in 1998, two years after the enactment of the law. Punjab and Rajasthan constituted the Board in 2009, and Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh got the Board as late as 2011.
The collection of cess – a mere one to two percent of the total cost of construction – is also low. The amount that should have been collected until January 2016 by various states, according to a submission made by the Union Labour Secretary before the Supreme Court, is estimated to be 70,270 crores INR. The actual collected amount until October 2016, according to a Parliament answer in December 2016, is 28,454.62 crores INR. Of this only 6097.47 (21.4 percent) crores INR had been put to use for the welfare of construction workers. The Supreme Court has expressed displeasure over this dismal state of affairs but this has not jolted governments into action.
As for the Sahab’s case, the MCD did shut down the construction site where he died. But is that enough? We hear about such deaths on a regular basis, and the shutting down one construction site isn’t going to help the crores of construction workers who sweat and toil under the open sky to build palatial buildings, while they sleep in cramped apartments or shanties made of plastic and asbestos.
Meanwhile, workers themselves organise for their rights to the extent that they can. “We don’t have those around here,” Kohli says, when I ask him whether he has joined any union. “But we do ask other workers to demand a higher rate from the contractor,” he adds. “If we remain united, then only (this can work), right? If I ask for 400 and you ask for 300, then why will he (the contractor) hire me?”