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Cheap labour for sale in Cyberabad's overflowing addas

By Safia Sircar

At least 40 million Indians are unemployed, and 10 million new job-seekers enter the job market every year. This report zeroes in on Hyderabad's addas where migrant labourers from Andhra Pradesh's water-starved districts struggle to sell their labour for as little as Rs 40 a day

It's crowded at the Diamond Point crossroads in Secunderabad, in the early morning rush hour. Forty-five-year-old Nagaiah, a resident of Nalmandali village in Andhra Pradesh's Medak district, arrives at 8 am. He stands at the crossroads amongst the busy traffic waiting for work. Soon others like him arrive and by 9 am Diamond Point is host to some 100-150 men and women in search of work. By 10, there's a sizeable crowd at the chowk as the day's business begins unmindful of the traffic and the muttered curses of office-goers.

Diamond Point is one of the many addas in the city where men and women put themselves up for 'sale'. Contractors, builders, transport-carriers arrive here to buy cheap labour. It's one enormous auction site.

The facts and figures relating to employment in India are revealing:

  • Nearly 84% of the workforce engaged in agriculture is either illiterate or has below-primary-level education.
  • At the end of 1998 there were 40 million people listed at employment exchanges, according to the 55th round of the National Sample Survey (NSS).
  • The NSS estimates that 10 million new job-seekers enter the market every year.
  • Ninth Plan projections indicate that 52 million jobs will be needed during 1997-2002, an additional 58 million during 2002-2007 and 55 million in 2007-2012.
  • The Indian workforce in the 35-60 age-group is expected to rise sharply during the Ninth Plan period.
  • In 2002, just 5% of the unorganised sector employing nearly 90 million people in 35 million enterprises received assistance from institutional financiers.
  • At the end of 1998, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that, worldwide, the total number of underemployed and unemployed stood at 1 billion.
  • An ILO 2001 report states that, across nations, close to 160 million people are unemployed; 20 million more than before the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
  • The ILO report claims that 500 million workers are unable to keep their families above the $1 per day poverty line. And 460 million jobs -- two-thirds of them in Asia -- will need to be generated over the next 10 years to keep pace with new job-seekers entering the market.

Nagaiah says: "I have been coming here (Diamond Point) for the past four years. In my village there is no work. No rains so no agricultural income. There is no water above or beneath the ground. I have a bit of land but even after putting a borewell nothing much happened. I and my family of five moved to the city to earn and live." Almost 90% of the workers are from the districts and talukas of Mehboob Nagar, Warangal, Nalgonda, Medak, Kurnool, Ranagareddy, Kolapu, Vanaparthi, Aakchampet, Nargarkurnool, Narayanpet, Kosgi, Gattu and Alampur.

According to the 55th round of the NSS, the number of non-agricultural labourers in 1999-2000 was estimated at 16.41 million -- 133.47% higher than 1993-1994 levels (7.02 million).

Vishnu tells us he's been in Secunderabad for a year. He and his family of eight were from Mehboob Nagar, where Vishnu used to work in a bidi factory. But things started becoming difficult and, for most of the month, Vishnu remained unemployed. So, when his friends told him about the addas he moved to the city. He now lives with his family in a nearby jhopdi (slum). But trouble is brewing. The land is under litigation. "The police and cantonment employees keep coming to 'remove' us. They tell us to move out saying it is cantonment land. If we are removed where will we go?"

Thirty-five-year-old Paul is an adda veteran. He explains the process. "Think, I am an owner. I am building a new house. I need masons and some labourers. I go to the adda and bargain with the labourers. A scooter is arranged for whoever agrees and he is driven to the work-site. Others like sub-contractors and builders who fall short of labour come too."

It's a scene of job insecurity, exploitation, ignorance and infringement of basic human rights and labour laws. "The problem," says Paul, "is that one day's pay has to suffice for three days when we get no work. Contractors bargain with us about rates. The market rate for a professional mason is Rs 200-250 a day, including expenses such as travel, meals, bidis and tea. But so many workers are available and willing to work for less pay. What to do, we need to have a meal at night, we need to live."

All the workers agree that they work for as little as Rs 40 when it comes to the crunch. Otherwise, wages vary between Rs 70 to Rs 50 a day. No overtime is given if the work extends late into the evening. Workers consider themselves lucky if they get an extra Rs 10. Women get less than men, the rationale being that they do 'light' work such as digging, breaking stones, mixing material or carrying headloads. Many agree to work for Rs 35-45. Men are paid Rs 50 a day and children above 12 years get between Rs 25 and Rs 30. The adda workers get no medical benefits. If they are injured whilst working, which happens often, they have to pay for their own medical treatment.

Says Tirupathi: "The men stand around till evening while we women go back after 12 noon to do the housework. We do whatever the owner tells us to do; pick up bricks, material, sand, clean houses, remove rubbish, weed gardens from 9 in the morning to 6 or even 8 at night. Owners do not give us food; we buy it from nearby Irani restaurants for Rs 10, or carry our tiffins. At times, the owners do not take us in vehicles or pay for travel. We go by bus if it is far, or walk to the site if it is near. Small children stay at home. We prepare food for them before leaving and they manage on their own."

Women are also targets of ill treatment. "I was walking on the road when one fellow tried to pull me inside an auto. When I refused and abused him he got out and physically tried to force me into the vehicle. Then, luckily, a police jeep came along. I called out and got the man arrested. It's been a year now. He is not to be seen anywhere." Tirupathi smiles triumphantly.

Tirupathi's father came to the city in 1986 and has been coming to the adda ever since. His entire family works as day labourers. They still do not have a pucca house to live in.

How has the adda business become so visible in recent years? Paul gives us the answer. "There were addas then too but very few people used to come. They would come early in the morning, get work and go off so no one ever saw them. Now the numbers have increased and so has the visibility in the past five years."

In 2003, official estimates of migrant farm labourers crossed 8 lakh; labour organisations put the figure at 12 lakh. Hyderabad is witnessing a spurt in construction activity ranging from five star hotels, a Formula One track, an Afro-Asian games complex, flyovers, bridges and huge multinational offices. Now known as 'Cyberabad', the city is an enticing livelihood option for migrant contract labour. PVN Prasad, chairperson of the Andhra Pradesh Sports Authority and head of the Telugu Desam Party's (TDP) technology committee says: "We work faster, we are more professional here, that's why businessmen like to deal with us."

With all the activity, how come there's so little regular work? "Whatever work is happening in Hyderabad is given to the big private contractors and builders and they get their own labourers from the villages on contract. How will we get work? Many of these workers come as bonded labourers. They get Rs 5,000 for a year, don't even get three meals a day, and work from 7 am to 7 pm," says Paul.

Adda workers are different from contract labourers. While adda workers come to the city and manage on their own, contract labourers, husband and wife, are bought from villages by city contractors for Rs 15,000-30,000 for nine months. Some agree to work for as little as Rs 5,000. As the money is paid without any interest or legal paperwork, the lumpsum proves exceedingly attractive to desperate families.

Ramesh Bhadoor, a field staff member of the local non-government organisation Ankuram-Sangamam-Poram (ASP), explains why adda workers are not keen to join the ranks of contract labourers. "Working hours are long. People work from 7 am to 7 pm. Food is given twice a day, once at 11 am and again at 3-4 pm. The diet includes mota rice and watery dal minus vegetables. Once a month mutton is cooked and that is considered ' mankkam ' , a special day, something to look forward to in a dreary life. In the space of nine months, no holidays are given. It's just work. If the workers fall ill they have to foot their own medical bills. Also, the worker will have to work free to compensate for that day or his/her pay is cut."

According to the consumption expenditure figures, as assessed by the 55th NSS round, the average annual expenditure on food by rural labourer households in India has fallen from 73.3% in 1963-65 to 61.4% in 1999-2000. Expenditure on clothing, bedding and footwear increased from 6.8% in 1963-65 to 7.6% in 1999-2000. Expenditure on services increased sharply from 8.3% in 1963-65 to 19.0% in 1999-2000. The figure for 1993-94 was 17.3%.

Both adda workers and contract labourers agree on one point: that they are completely ignorant of labour laws, and that the contractors completely disregard the laws. In fact, the state abets this by legitimising it. In 1999, a government order agreed "in principle, self-certification/exemption as far as possible for the IT software industry from the provisions of the following acts/regulations: Factories Act, Employment Exchange (Notification of Vacancies Act), Payment of Wages Act, Minimum Wages Act, Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, Workmen Compensation Act, Andhra Pradesh Shops and Establishments Act and Employees State Insurance Act".

K Ramachandran, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the high-profile Indian School of Business (where James Murdoch, CEO of STAR Group Ltd, stepped in to the governing board on September 27, 2003) says: "Traditional industries are dying out. Naidu doesn't think of agriculture much. He's seen the trickle-down effect of IT and he's thinking, why can't sports do the same for me."

Politically savvy Paul adds: "Election time is near so all the political parties will make a big noise about our welfare. The Telugu Desam Party has done nothing for us poor in these eight years. Till now many of us are not in the voters' list, haven't got our ration cards and are forced to continually bribe officials to live here. We gave a chance to the Congress and the TDP, perhaps now we will vote for the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS)." Paul smirks and adds: "You know, there is a saying in Telugu: a mouse digs beneath his stomach and feet only and that's what the people in power are doing."

(Safia Sircar is a Hyderabad-based development journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2004