The Condition of Construction Workers in the National Capital Region of Delhi

Nirman Mazdoor Shakti Sangathan

They build houses and are seen arduously and meticulously laying bricks on cement-sand mortar up to hundreds of metres in height stepping on dangerously built make-shift ladders of bamboo loosely tied by coconut ropes and risking their lives only to make somebody’s dream home come true. But what about their own life? They are condemned to live in shanty hutments just below the building which they are making. And once the building is complete they have to shift with their meagre belongings to another construction site. And again the same vicious circle moves. They can never dream of their own roof. How can they? They don’t even get the minimum wages and whatever money they get is totally insufficient to meet their daily ration. They live a life of just above stray animals.

This is the sad tale of the construction workers. There are such 8.5 million workers engaged in building and other construction activities in India. They constitute the most vulnerable segment amongst the unorganised workforce in the country owing to their temporary nature of work and lack of a definite employee-employer relationship. Apart from this there is neither a fixed working hour, nor any documentation like an employee register, attendance, etc .maintained by the employers due to the temporary nature of assignment.

The risk to life and limb is manifold more than that of their counterparts engaged in other organised/unorganised sectors. They do not get any proper medical facility and any statutory grievance mechanism is also totally absent for them. Whatever statutory provisions exist for them the apathetic bureaucratic machinery has made it so labyrinthine and complicated that it is beyond the limit of an ordinary worker to approach any such forum or institutional body. The indifferent attitude of the central and respective state governments has compelled the construction and building workers to live in utter exploitation and deprivation. There is no scene of the end of injustice perpetrated upon them by both their employers and the state machinery in the near future.

Most of the construction workers are migrant labourers and landless labourers from U.P, Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and other economically weaker regions of India. A majority of them are OBC, Dalit or Scheduled tribes who come to urban centres like Delhi, Mumbai and other Metros and cities in search of either livelihood or to supplement their earnings during the lean period when their main source of employment ( agriculture and other peripheral activities associated with it) is not available in season (i.e. in non-sowing season).

Many other people, especially Tribals, who are forced to leave their ancestral villages due to reasons like the ‘Naxalite issue’ (as in Chhattisgarh), displacement due to dams and other ‘development’ activities like mining and industrialisation, that renders them landless with little or almost no compensation. These people who for centuries lived as subsistence farmers suddenly turn into landless peasants. Bereft of everything they have no other option but migrate to the urban centres for living as a construction or building worker. This occupation requires no capital and these people sell the only commodity which they have – their labour power. So it no surprise that this segment of the working class is the most exploited and vulnerable to all sorts of machinations of contractors. In the absence of any united voice these helpless, voiceless workers are forgotten and left to wallow in their own misery while the city takes pride in the buildings that they construct with their sweat, tears toil and blood.

Since 2000 and particularly after economic liberalisation Delhi has witnessed a steep growth in construction and building activities. Both the Delhi state government and the private sector have been involved in multi-million projects ranging from the construction of residential apartments to that of the gigantic Delhi Metro project, which is being handled by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Limited (DMRC) – a joint venture of the Government of Delhi and the Government of India.

Apart from these residential and commercial projects being executed, there is another major project being carried out at a frantic speed, that of the construction of ‘Khel Gaon’ (Sports Village) for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, that are slated to be organised in New Delhi. A total of 175 establishments consisting of companies both in the Public and Private sector are engaged in construction activity in Delhi.

To protect and further the interest of the workers involved in the construction activity the Government has constituted the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board (DBOCWWB) under the Department of Labour on 22 September 2002.

Even after the advancement of structural engineering technology, and the development of mammoth construction machines, construction still remains a labour intensive activity where the number of workers required to perform a task is much more if compared with other production oriented industries. So it is no surprise to see large number of workers - skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled working together to complete a piece of work. If we think about all the construction being executed in Delhi the number of construction workers engaged must be running into few thousands or even touching lakhs. But surprisingly, according to the data furnished by the DBOCWWB, in Delhi the total workforce engaged in the construction and other building activities is a trifling number of seventeen thousand three hundred twenty workers! On the other hand, DBOCWWB informed the Nirman Mazdoor Shakti Sangathan, (NMSS) that the total amount of cess collected from the construction activities going in Delhi is a whopping sum of Rs. 219 crore. In other words Rs. 21900 crore of course is being executed by a workforce of only 17 thousand personnel! (RTI/06/ DBOCWWB/08/3804)

The Construction Workers Welfare Boards all over India are guided by ‘The Building and Other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1996. Chapter-Two of this Act stipulates that:

'(1) The State Government shall constitute a committee to be called the State Building and Other Construction Workers' Advisory Committee (hereinafter referred to as the State Advisory Committee) to advise the State Government on such matters arising out of the administration of this Act as may be referred to it.

(2) The State Advisory Committee shall consist of –

* a Chairperson to be appointed by the State Government;

* two members of the State Legislature to be elected from the State Legislature-members;

* a member to be nominated by the Central Government;

* the Chief Inspector-member, ex officio;

such number of other members, not exceeding eleven, but not less than seven, as the State Government may nominate to represent the employers, building workers, associations of architects, engineers, accident insurance institutions and any other interests which, in the opinion of the State Government, ought to be represented on the State Advisory Committee.

(3) The number of persons to be appointed as members from each of the categories specified in clause (e) of sub-section (2), the term of office and other conditions of service of, the procedure to be followed in the discharge of their functions by, and the manner of filling vacancies among, the members of State Advisory Committee shall be such as may be prescribed:

Provided that the number of members nominated to represent the building workers shall not be less than the number of members nominated to represent the employers.’

Yet much to our surprise as on 14th January 2009 the Delhi Government had still not constituted any State Advisory Committee. It implies that the Delhi government had violated the very first constitutional provision that it had to undertake with respect to the effective implementation of the welfare measures for the construction workers (DBOCWWB/RTI.ID-4/6792).

The total expense incurred by the Board since its inception six year ago has been sixty eight lakh, ninety four thousand, four hundred, forty nine rupees and twenty five paisa. out of which the Board spent a major amount of almost 36 lakh on advertisements followed by a sum of Rs. 13.50 lakh on insurance premium of workers.*(see Table-1 for itemised detail).the total amount spent on giving death compensation to a worker is just fifteen thousand rupees only. The reason is that according to the Board’s records till date there have been only two reported deaths of construction workers on construction sites. Of these two compensations only one has been paid to the kin of the deceased, while the other victim’s compensation amount is still under process.

This impressive figure of only two as doled out by the Board prove to be farce when compared with the figures provided by the Delhi Police based on the First Information Reports (FIRs) lodged in the various police stations in the National Capital Region of Delhi (NCT) which says that from 2002 to 2008 the total number of 290 workmen were killed and 481 injured on the construction sites. Let us not forget that even these figures calculated from the FIRs too do not give the actual numbers of fatalities and injuries as it is the common practice of the contractors and the police to refrain from lodging proper FIRs for reasons well known to all! But despite the indifferent attitude towards these workers in the unorganised sector there has been a reported figure of 290 number killed, against the Welfare Board and Labour Department’s statistics of only two deaths. The Delhi Police should be appreciated that they have been at least registering these many numbers of deaths and injuries whereas the Labour Department has been sitting idle.

This glaring difference highlights the criminal lackadaisical attitude of the Board whose sole purpose of existence is to protect the rights of the workers and act as a wall against the onslaught of exploitation by their employers. But instead of protecting them, it has even failed to record even the correct number of the workers killed. If the Board is unaware of this it may not be difficult to know as to what it is doing in the other areas of its mandate.

It is pertinent to also look at the members who constitute this board. It has not only the bureaucrats and representatives of the Delhi Government, but it also boasts of having representatives from the trade union and civil society organisations as its members. The present list of members of the Board has been given in Table II. A noticeable point is that it has members from the trade union and ‘civil society’ since its inception, yet it has failed to become an effective instrument in protecting the interests of the construction workers. We have in our possession the minutes of all the meetings and it is strange to find that the trade union representative has neither raised a single demand so far for the effective implementation of the provisions of the Act, nor has he ever demanded that the Board should effectively carry out its duties as expected from a representative of the working class. Perhaps this trade union representative is unaware of the condition of the workers or maybe he is not interested in taking up the issues on behalf of the workers.

Chapter VI, Para 35 of the Act titled Crèches for providing ‘of room or rooms for the use of children under the age of six of such female workers’. The Board has entered into an agreement with an organisation called ‘Mobile Crèches’. This agreement was signed between the Executive Director of Mobile Crèches (MC) and the authorised signatory of the Board. The Board’s decision to award the project was taken on a proposal moved by the MC in the meeting held on 19.02.2008. The Board paid an amount of Rs. 3, 34,426 to MC as an advance to run the crèches at three places for a period of three months. It is interesting to note that Ms Mridula Bajaj, the Executive Director of the Mobile Crèches is a member of the Board! Awarding this project to this organisation is clear-cut case of favouritism and vested interest.

Is there a racket operating in the Welfare Board and have these vested interests reduced it to their private fiefdom and made it a lame duck pocket organisation?

The Board rightly felt that to design appropriate project for the welfare of the construction workers in Delhi, it is important to map these workers to get their proper estimate. This project was awarded at an estimated cost of Rs. 6, 82,500 to Delhi School of Social Works Society (DSSWS), which is the mother institution of Delhi School of Social Work, now known as Department of Social Works, University of Delhi. The DSSWS had quoted this amount. But hereto the Board violated the provisions of Building Workers’ Act 1996, which according to the Chapter VIII, Para 42 point No. 2 clearly mentions that such activities are the job of the Chief Inspector and Inspector! Even the way this project was awarded to the DSSWS raises doubts. The Board awarded it to the Society based on a proposal submitted by the Society itself. Thus, it can be safely assumed that there was no prior information given out to the public about this project that the Board wanted to undertake this project. In fact, it appears that the Board awarded this project to the DSSWS on a platter. Is it not injustice to other institutions that such a big project was awarded to the DSSWS without anyone else even knowing about it? A related question arises that how come DSSWS came to know that DBOCWWB was thinking to undertake a mapping project, or was it that after DSSWS submitted its proposal only then the DBOCWWB understood the importance of mapping the workers. And if the DBOCWWB was already thinking of mapping then who tipped off the DSSWS about it? Is there any insider in the Board leaking information to his/her favoured institution? If this is not true and the project is the DSSWS initiative then we would like to know if DBOCWWB does not have even competence to understand that before formulating any project it is vital to understand the needs and condition of the audience, then can such an incompetent Board deserves to be given the authority and mandate to oversee the total welfare of the construction workers? Thus the Board has been openly flaunting the rules giving its own interpretation. When asked on what grounds this project was awarded to the DSSWS the Board gave an evasive reply.

The team of Nirman Majdoor Shakti Sangathan (NMSS), affiliated to New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), visited over 65 big and small construction sites in Delhi to assess the situation at the ground level and also to observe how much the rules of the Construction Workers Act are being implemented. In none of the sites visited were signs of any rule being enforced or followed. Not a single major construction site was having any visible Welfare or Occupational Safety Committee. No worker was aware of any such law requiring the constitution of a safety committee. No information was made available to the team about the Safety Committee. This is yet another instance of the Board’s casual approach in enforcing the provisions of the Construction Workers’ Act.

Further Chapter VIII, Para 39 point 1, 2, 3 of the Act mentions that:

(1) Where in any establishment an accident occurs which causes death or which causes any bodily injury by reason of which the person injured is prevented from working for the period of forty-eight hours or more immediately following the accident, or which is of such a nature as may be prescribed, the employer shall give notice thereof to such authority, in such form and within such time as may be prescribed.

(2) On receipt of a notice under sub-section (1) the authority referred to in that sub-section may make such investigation or inquiry as it considers necessary.

(3) Where a notice given under sub-section (1) relates to an accident causing death of five or more persons, the authority shall make an inquiry into such accident within one month of the receipt of the notice.

But there has not been any notice of accidents. Thus it is no surprise that why the officials or the Safety Officer of the Board have no information about the ground situation. For the members of the Board sitting in an ivory tower the entire world seems to be the Garden of Eden whereas for the workers it is a world apathetic to their rights making them helpless, and hopelessly struggling against the ruthless exploitative system. Incidentally, till date the Board has not found time to appoint any chief inspector and inspector.

The list of the Board’s misdeeds and the gross violation of almost each and every provision of the Construction workers’ Act constitutes a serious offence of negligence of duty, misinterpretation and violation of Law.

 The Board in its meeting held on 5-10-2007 decided to increase the monthly pension of the workers from the existing amount of Rs. 150 to Rs 600 per month! The reason behind this four-time increase in the pension fund was that the Board felt that Rs. 150 was an inadequate amount. Can this newly increased amount of Rs. 600 be called adequate for a living, what to talk of a decent living in a metro like Delhi? Has not the Board made a mockery of the condition of the working class? And if the members of this Board feel that Rs. 600 is the right amount would they bother to declare their own monthly expense? Are they ready to live on Rs 600 per month? On the other hand the members of the Board have shamelessly increased their daily meeting allowance from Rs. 200 to Rs. 400. So they are entitled to get Rs. 400 for squandering away money on their pet organisations, whereas a worker who has spent his/her entire life toiling in the sun and rain would get Rs. 600 to meet his/her monthly expense!! Isn’t it an irony that the workers for whom the Board exists are forced to live on Rs. 600 while it is siphoning off millions to others? Who is to be accountable for this cruel joke?

When it comes to the welfare and workers’ benefit the DMRC is also no better than its counterparts. The DMRC has devised ingenious ways to circumvent and violate the Workers’ Welfare Act. It has also been giving incorrect data on the total number of death and injuries sustained by the workers employed by it or by its contractors. The DMRC has enforced its own mechanism for compensating the workers who sustain injuries or killed while working on any of its sites. The workers are compensated by The DMRC Labour Welfare Fund Rules that it flaunts as a unique initiative by the company. While congratulating it we would also like to remind the management that any compensation to the workers has to be under the provision of Workmen’s Compensation Act 1923 and not by any other ‘unique’ methods devised by it. The DMRC’s method is in complete violation of the two statutory laws and it must be held accountable for nudging the laws of the country and it cannot devise laws on its own. It all other companies start functioning like this then the day is not far off when the country would be having several different sets of laws and even constitution!

The NMSS survey of the various DMRC sites revealed that the workers had no knowledge of the existence of any compensation package. The DMRC claims that there have been a total of 69 deaths of the workers. This figure is again contradicted when compared with the data provided by the Delhi Police.

The story of Welfare Board has hitherto been that of an abject failure in protecting and furthering the cause of the construction workers in Delhi. It has become the fief of some and has lost its justification for existence. It has failed to get the workers welfare act implemented and has on the other hand been blatantly violating it. Hence it is demanded that the existing board be revised. There should be two commissions set up under a Supreme Court or High Court Judge. First they should get the provisions of the Act implemented. The second commission should be constituted to investigate the irregularities and violation of the Acts that has taken place by the members of the Board, so that the guilty should be brought before the court and suitable case should be lodged against them. The commission should also take into consideration the criminal negligence and callousness that the present Board has displayed towards the welfare of the workers and the acts of favouritism it has shown towards others. The reconstituted Board should be an institution that should be an inspiring establishment for the workers. It should be approachable by the poorest of the poor and a place where all the grievances and injustice of the exploited class should be addressed. Only then would the workers Board could truly justify its existence, otherwise it would be just another government body without any purpose.

Table 1

Total Expenditure Incurred by DBOCWWB
Jan Shree Bima Yojna
1349900.00
Advertisement to create awareness 3588970.75
Printing and Stationery 416,745.00
Thyagrajan Stadium Camp 16668.00
Inauguration
30255.00
Engagement of Data Entry Operators 510799.00
Mapping of Construction Workers 546000.00
Mobile Crèches 341460.00
Death Benefit 15000.00
Engagement of CA 78652.00
Total
6894449.75

Table 2

List of members of the First Board List of current Board Members
  1. Hon’ble Minister of Labour Shri Deep Chand Bandhu – Chairman
  2. Sh. S.P Marwah, Labour Commissioner – Member
  3. Sh. J.C Negi, Jt. Labour Commissioner – Member
  4. Sh. Jagadish Chander Director M/O Labour, Govt. of India – Member
  5. Sh R.K. Prabahkar, Dy Secretary (Law), Govt. of Delhi – Member
  6. Sh C.M. Bhasin, CIF – Member
  7. Sh Charan Singh Yadav – Member
  8. Capt J.S. Mann – Member
  9. Sh. Subhash Bhatnagar – Member
10. Sh. Sunil Sharma – Member
11. Sh. Sanjeev Kr. Vashishha – Member
12. Sh. Umesh Aggaral – Member 1. Sh. K.S. Wahi Secretary Labour – Member
  1. Sh. K.S. Wahi Secretary Labour – Member
  2. Sh. Chandra Bhushan Kumar Labour Commissioner – Member
  3. Sh. P. Sharma, JLC – Member
  4. Sh. R.K. Verma, Dy. Sec (Finance) – Member
  5. Sh. Dy Sec (Law and Justice) – Member
  6. Sh. P.C. Chauhan, Project Director (PWD) – Member
  7. Sh. Raj Pal Arora, Builders Association of India – Member
  8. Sh. Subhash Bhatnagar Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam – Member
  9. Sh Ramesh Vats, Mahanagar Asangathit Mazdoor Union – Member
10. Sh Arun Malhotra – Member
11. Mohd. Mustak Alvi – Member
12. Smt. Vijay Mallik – Member
13. Sh. Brij Bhushan, Dy Director (Representative of Commissioner Pers.) DDA – Member
14. Sh. J.C. Negi, Member Secretary

Notes and References:

1 This is the official figure; though we believe that there actual number is far more than what has been mentioned.
2 The compensation policy is mentioned in the Building and Other Construction Worker’s Welfare 1996

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