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Creating the common wealth?

By Sujata Madhok

A survey of 450 construction worker households across 15 construction sites in Delhi and its surrounds - many of them building infrastructure for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, on which the Delhi government plans to spend Rs 7,000 crore -- reveals a squalid tale of poverty, exploitation and ill health

construction sites in Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games

Amidst the urban chaos of Delhi's CGO complex, past the chauffeur-driven cars and chartered buses that bring public sector managers, government officials and staff to work in the towering buildings, the road suddenly stops at a barrier. Tin sheets wall off the area beyond; one can barely glimpse the arc of the giant Nehru Stadium.

Past the guarded barrier lies a scene of sudden festivity. Mothers and children sit in an open, carpeted area and the small building behind them is festooned. A couple of TV cameras and reporters are ready to catch the action as Delhi's Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit strides in to inaugurate the first crèche being set up at a Commonwealth Games site in the city.

Beyond, you can sense the hectic construction going on in the stadium that is being rebuilt for the 2010 games.

An estimated 100,000 migrant workers will be brought to Delhi to build infrastructure for the games. The city is already home to 800,000 construction workers, thanks to the frenzied building boom.

The small crowd listens as Dikshit makes her customary speech. Infants, toddlers and older kids huddle on the durrie, dressed, cleaned and combed for the occasion. They are painfully thin; their skimpy clothes and tiny limbs tell a tale of poverty and neglect.

It is such children for whom the NGO Mobile Crèches provides basic care at large construction sites in Delhi and its suburbs. The crèche at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was recently opened with the cooperation of the construction company Shapoorji Pallonji, one of the principal builders at the site. It represents the first benefits to construction workers from a long-awaited government welfare fund.

The children's parents work at the stadium site and on adjacent buildings. Women who labour on construction sites are invariably young. Many babies and toddlers grow up in labour camps close to the worksites; their working mothers have little time and few resources to feed them and provide them the care they require to grow into healthy adults.

As any mother knows, babies must be breastfed every couple of hours and infants need specially prepared soft supplementary foods until they get teeth. It is difficult for construction workers to provide these. Worse, since they live on construction sites, children are subject to dust, heat, noise and multiple hazards. Basic facilities like water, toilets, drainage and electricity are also often missing in the temporary labour camps. This lethal combination of factors dooms construction workers' children to ill health, disease, malnutrition, high morbidity and mortality. They inherit a lifelong legacy of poor health.

Mobile Crèches has struggled for four decades to set up crèches at worksites around Delhi and provide children a safe daycare environment, nutritious meals, health checkups, immunisation and early childhood education through games and play. It's no easy task building up the health of undernourished children, especially as they are frequently uprooted and moved to other sites where there is no crèche. The NGO's network is limited to a few large sites in the city and its suburbs.

A witness to the growing distress migration of rural folk to the city, Mobile Crèches recently conducted a survey of 450 construction worker households across 15 construction sites in Delhi and the neighbouring areas. The households they surveyed were extremely mobile, moving frequently from site to site within the city and peripheral townships. They also move back and forth between the city and the village, depending on the availability of work and familial needs.

Many male workers leave families behind in the villages and send money home to sustain them and to repay debts. Contractors prefer employing male workers as it frees them of the responsibility of providing services to their families.

Kanshi Ram from Bilaspur is grateful for his daily wage at a construction site in Delhi. "In the village I could not get two square meals a day. I have no land and often there is no work available on other people's land. Life is better here. I don't go hungry," he says simply.

Agrarian distress is clearly responsible for the decision to migrate, with most migrant households being landless labourers or marginal farmers dependent on unpredictable rainfall to grow food. The majority surveyed were from states like Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Almost half the migrants belonged to the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes. While nearly half the men were literate, female literacy was only 11%.

Migration is a mixed blessing for these people. Most of the 450 households surveyed reported a sharp increase in wages after migration. Working couples invariably managed to earn over Rs 3,000 a month. As Raaj Mistri from Chhattisgarh explained: "In my village I earn Rs 30 a day; here I make Rs 120 a day as a skilled mason."

However, most workers do not get the official minimum wage. Nor do they get a paid weekly day off. Women are paid lower wages and are restricted to laborious 'unskilled' tasks. Since living costs in the city are higher, migrant families spend most of their income on food. The difficult and hazardous nature of their work, the rudimentary housing, the lack of facilities like toilets and water impacts their health. An incredible 84% of families in the sample said they had to spend Rs 500-1,000 a month on healthcare alone. One out of three workers was in debt, either in the village or in the city. Ill health was the largest single factor for incurring a debt.

Around 70% of the women and children whose health was monitored were found to be malnourished. Social factors contribute to a cycle of early marriage, early pregnancy, low birth weight babies and poor feeding practices. Most babies had been delivered in the village by untrained birth attendants. Only 32% were exclusively breastfed for the first six months. On the three indicators of maternal health, child health and childcare practices, standards were far lower than the country status reflected in the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3).

Typical of such women is Bhotbai, who is short, underweight and has three small children. She leaves her baby in the care of her five-year-old daughter Saraswati when she and her husband go to work on a site in Dwarka.

Workers like Bhotbai are rarely able to access any government facilities. They seldom make it to distant government hospitals or health centres; they do not possess ration cards; their children do not go to municipal schools and grow up without an education.

A longstanding demand of Mobile Crèches is that the central government's Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme be re-designed to serve such deprived populations. The organisation says the ICDS should include provision for mobile anganwadi centres that can be set up temporarily at labour camps and shifted to the next site when the work is over. Such mobile centres could also serve other populations of seasonal workers, for example brick kiln workers or those working at National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) sites.

However, such visionary thinking rarely goes beyond the pages of official reports. The ground reality is starkly different.

The Delhi government plans to spend an extravagant Rs 7,000 crore on the 10-day Commonwealth Games. None of this money has been set aside to ensure facilities for workers. A lot of money will flow to the big builders and construction companies that have grabbed contracts to build stadia, roads, flyovers and sports facilities. Nothing will accrue to the men and women who build the infrastructure, beyond a meagre wage earned through hard labour, at risk to their lives.

In March 2008 there was a deadly outbreak of meningitis at the Games Village site on the banks of the Yamuna river. Media reports spoke of several deaths and many workers fled to their villages to escape the contagion. Officially, of course, the deaths were denied. A municipal corporation team that inspected the site reportedly found living conditions extremely crowded, with workers sleeping in multi-level dormitories built out of asbestos sheets, and unsanitary toilet facilities. The public relations department of the construction company went into overdrive to deflect the media criticism. The site was quickly cleaned up and conditions improved, but it is unclear whether anyone was held culpable.

The Village site itself is controversial, with environmental groups critiquing its location on the Yamuna riverbed which is a major source of groundwater for the city. A prolonged agitation by environmentalists came to naught as it was up against the powerful builders' lobby. The site will house athletes for around 10 days; later, the flats will turn into an elite housing enclave for the city's rich.

NGOs and citizens' groups came together earlier this year to form a platform to lobby for the rights of those labouring on such sites. The Commonwealth Games-Citizens for Workers, Women and Children (CWG-CWC) has been persistently pursuing government officials to ensure that long-overdue facilities are provided to workers.

Chief among their demands is implementation of two pieces of labour legislation specific to the industry. The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and an accompanying Cess Act prescribe the formation of a tripartite welfare board to extend social security to construction workers. The Delhi government, after years of hedging, established a board in 2003, headed by the labour minister and comprising several largely indifferent officials. The board is expected to levy a 1% cess on construction activity and use the funds to provide benefits to workers.

By mid-2008, the board had managed to collect Rs 150 crore as cess. However, it is reluctant to dole out the benefits. After some prodding it agreed recently to fund the setting up of a few crèches and offer scholarships to children of workers registered with it. The Nehru Stadium crèche is the first to be sponsored by the welfare board; others are in the pipeline.

The board also decided to give school-going children a monthly scholarship of Rs 100 per head. Predictably, however, the finance department babus have put a spoke in the wheel and want even this amount reduced.

To date, the board has managed to register only around 11,000 workers, of the 8 lakh construction workers in the city. Workers are expected to register themselves and pay a monthly contribution. In return they will eventually be entitled to accident compensation, maternity entitlements, pension, and other facilities.

Most workers have not heard of either the law or the board. There are practically no unions in this unorganised sector to inform them of their rights under the law. The board itself has not bothered to publicise the laws and their welfare provisions.

Left to itself the labour department of the Delhi government would prefer to casually collect a token cess from a few builders and spend it to fund their own salaries and facilities. For years the city's VIP politicians and officials have tried to wash their hands of these workers' issues by insisting that they are temporary migrants for whom they are not responsible. What they conveniently forget however is that it is these migrants who have built the city; it is to them that they owe their fancy bhavans and Lutyens bungalows.

Construction workers build the wealth of our cities; they enrich us only to return empty-handed to their villages. Significantly, out of the 450 families surveyed, barely 9% had any savings. Ninety-eight per cent had not been able to add a single asset to their household whilst labouring to transform the capital of their country into a 'world class city'.

InfoChange News & Features, September 2008