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Construction worker deaths on the rise in Delhi

During 2008-09, 48 construction workers died in Delhi, and 98 suffered serious injuries. The growing number of accidents at construction sites raises questions about the lack of safety norms in place at mammoth projects currently underway in the capital

The Commonwealth Games Citizens for Workers, Women and Children (CWG-CWC) initiative, documenting fatalities amongst construction workers in the capital, has concluded that over 48 construction workers have died, and another 98 suffered serious injuries, in a series of mishaps at construction sites during 2008-09. 

The last such incident occurred on July 23, 2009, when a cement mixer fell on a worker, crushing him to death, while work was being executed at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. This was the fourth serious mishap at a construction site within a fortnight, bringing the tally of fatalities to seven, with 21 injured.  

These accidents raise serious questions about the lack of safety norms in place, in mammoth construction projects being carried out in Delhi.  

Construction worker unions say that the 8-10 lakh workers presently executing massive projects in the capital are largely migrants brought in from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The workers are hired through contractors and sub-contractors, and have no proper employment records. When a fatal accident occurs, the body is usually quickly disposed of. Work at the site stops for a few days, it is reported, and the dead man’s co-workers paid off and dismissed.  Relatives are rarely able to recover the body; activists say they do not receive any compensation.  

Subhash Bhatnagar, who heads the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam (NMPS), says: “Workers on high-profile projects such as the Metro and the Commonwealth Games project are being made to work 12 hours at a stretch. This is in complete violation of the Construction Workers Act of 1996 which recommends a 48-hour working cycle per week. The present 72-hour week leads to overwork and overexertion.”  

Metro chief E Sreedharan has admitted that over 90 people died in accidents during construction of the Metro, in the last decade. CWG-CWC activists question why it took so long for the government and the DMRC to put a disaster management plan in place. 

The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, and the Delhi Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Rules, 2002 clearly spell out service conditions for construction workers, as also the need to register workers. Registration with the welfare board would entitle workers to receive adequate medical treatment in case of an accident, as also compensation for their families in the event of a fatality. “At present we do not know how much compensation has been paid by the DMRC to the 90 workers who died. Their names, home addresses and amount paid should have been made public on the Metro website. But this is not the case,” Bhatnagar points out. 

The People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) also made attempts to investigate working conditions at construction sites for the Commonwealth Games. But they were denied access to the worksites. PUDR activists say that when a worker died on December 14, 2008, in an accident at a Commonwealth Games village site, workers struck work and demanded that his body be shown to them. They also asked for better work, living and sanitation facilities.  

Unofficial figures for meningitis deaths amongst workers is said to have reached 100, CWG-CWC activists claim, but these figures are not backed by police records. 

Bhatnagar explains that all sites employing over 500 workers are expected by law to set up joint safety committees, comprising management and workers, which should meet every month to review safety measures. This would go a long way in preventing accidents.   

Anjali Alexander of Mobile Crèches says they recently took up the safety issue with Union Minister for Sports M S Gill, the Delhi labour department and the director general labour welfare at the Centre. “They have come up with a proposal to set up a safety committee to oversee all these construction sites. The committee will consist of bureaucrats, employees, technical experts and workers. Safety norms have to be institutionalised across all projects, not just high-profile projects that draw media attention,” Alexander points out.

-- Rashme Sehgal 

Infochange News & Features, July 2009