Construction work is perhaps the second most important source of livelihood in the country after farming related work. Construction workers have faced extremely difficult times for more than a year as livelihood opportunities have decreased steeply. Those who are migrants have faced even greater difficulties but even those who are relatively better settled in cities have faced big problems not just during lockdowns  but also in the more prolonged periods of very low employment which follow. What  is more, the fate of the special welfare laws relating to them has also become more uncertain.

The National Campaign Committee for Construction Labor (NCC-CL) had played a very important role in enactment of  two important protective laws for construction workers. These laws were enacted in 1996. Since then the NCC-CL  has been involved in mobilizing support and fighting court cases to ensure the better implementation of these laws. As a result of these untiring efforts of this as well as some other organizations, courts including the Supreme Court issued important orders from time to time regarding the better implementation of these laws.  But now there is real danger of these laws being diluted badly.

These laws provided for a cess of one per cent to be imposed on construction works which can fund pensions, health and maternity benefits for construction workers and scholarships for their children. 36 building and other construction worker boards (BOCW boards) have been set up in different states and union territories since then under these two laws.

Progress was slow initially but after the court orders implementation hopes had been rising ( particularly after a Supreme Court verdict in 2018). Some workers and their children had started receiving benefits while many  more  have high hopes. I visited several construction colonies in Delhi from time to time and reported on both aspects of the emerging situation—the very few worker households who had already experienced great relief due to getting these benefits and the much larger number of workers who had been visiting offices and submitting papers time and again but were increasingly frustrated  at not getting any benefits. When I told them about the new orders of the Supreme Court a glow appeared on the face of some of the workers and they had new hope. By then a lot of further damage had been  caused among several of these households due to the prolonged adverse impacts of demonetization and so they were even more desperate than before. It was only the Supreme Court decision which gave them some hope.

Unfortunately these hopes have been  badly jolted in the process of the Union Government enacting four labor codes. In the process the precise fate and form of some existing legislations including the two Construction Worker Acts of 1996 has become uncertain. The NCC-CL has strongly opposed replacing the hard-won existing rights with a  weak and impractical alternative system which will be very difficult to implement.

In a note on emerging situation of construction workers  the Committee  stated that the construction workers oppose the new legislative provisions which may result in dilution of the BOCW Acts of 1996. The Committee has instead demanded the implementation of the Supreme Court judgment of 2018 on the NCC-CL petition regarding better implementation of the two 1996 legislations.

The lockdowns and the resulting more prolonged loss of livelihoods have brought great distress to construction workers and there is uncertainty regarding what form the various provisions of the 1996 laws will take under the new dispensation. It has been noticed already that the thousands of crores of Rs. already deposited with the boards are not being utilized in a satisfactory and adequate  way to help construction workers in these extremely difficult times. The government should ensure that these hard-won rights of construction workers are well-protected and  the funds collected for their welfare are  used adequately and properly with this purpose.

Bharat Dogra is a  journalist and author. His  recent books include Man Over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.