Those who built my House

construction workers migrants

In the film, Dafan found on YouTube, a young civil engineer is giving a tour of a construction site to his manager and boss. When a worker at the site has an accident and sustains serious injuries, he is rushed to hospital. But despite the best efforts of the doctors, he dies. At this stage, the manager leaves after giving his final instructions to the young engineer that he should “manage” the situation. The people to be managed include the police, the hospital staff, the local union among others. The dead worker is no longer relevant to the equation or the economy.

As per the government of India, the construction sector contributes to 9% of the GDP and employs 44 million workers, becoming the second-largest employer in India in 2017. We also aim at making our construction market the third-largest globally by 2025. Surprisingly, while it aims for greatness, the sector is also one where the workforce is forced to work in deplorable conditions with no provision of basic shelter, food, sanitation, safety, health care. That reminds me of something I myself witnessed at close quarters.

A few years ago, my housing society undertook a major renovation project which took about a year or more to complete. The contractor procured labourers and their entire families; kids et all for the duration. Although there was not much interaction with the residents, from their way of speaking Hindi, it became clear that they were mostly from Bihar. For nearly a year, they were accommodated in the housing society lawns where they put up make-shift huts with canvas roofs. In the evening, the women would cook basic meals on equally makeshift chulhas while the menfolk would smoke bidis. The society had made arrangements to supply drinking water but for their ablutions, they made use of the many open spaces outside. This part of the city has not become a concrete jungle, and green spaces are still to be found.

My society is not a particularly upmarket one. Most owners are or were employees with the government or PSUs at the middle level that had got together to form a cooperative housing society and become eligible for a group housing plot as per the policy prevailing then. Of course, all had maids to attend to the domestic chores. Their antecedents had been verified with the local police and their Aadhar and other Identity documents were available in the society office. But when this sudden army of construction workers descended from nowhere and set up on the lawns of the society, there was distinct unease. No one where they were from. Possibly the contractors had checked their papers but no one was sure.

Silent distress set in. Small children were no longer so free to play around in the society. In any case, the small society park was no longer available. Adults began whispering among themselves about the need to be careful about valuables. The construction workers are indispensable to any building activity – be it the renovation of a modest housing society or a modern highway, airport, or bridge and the morphing of many of our decaying cities as “smart cities” but they are eternally faceless. During the year or more that they remained in our housing society, they remained in a parallel universe of their own. They made no effort to cross their vast caste class divide and even for people like”us”, the thought of getting them beyond a polite nod of the head if our paths crossed in the list was all the interaction there was. And believe me even that one minute seemed uneasy; it seemed that suddenly time had slowed down.

Construction workers are everywhere and yet among the most invisible of Indians. As migrants with no permanent residence and moving from place to place as their work takes them, they mostly don’t vote, often don’t have an ID card, or have one with an address that is outdated. As migrants with no name entered the electoral roles, they matter to no political party in a country obsessed with vote banks. Even so, we have a law to govern them just as we have a law for everything and everyone. In this case, it is the Building and Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act of 1996, one of the last laws enacted by the little lamented PV Narasimha Rao government.

There is a plethora of government schemes for those living below the poverty line. Nearly all construction workers would qualify. But then there is the ubiquitous Aadhar that is notionally not compulsory to get but no government scheme is accessible without it. And with jobs that take them a place to place and state to state, it is hard getting one. The maze is such that to procure one ID, typically you need another to authenticate and if you have nothing, the local MLA, MP or magistrate has to certify the bonafide of the applicant. And a migrant is on the radar of no one.

The nationwide lockdown announced in 2020 brought construction activities to a stop and pushed millions of construction workers in the industry to an edge. Even the lifting of the lockdown did not help much as job opportunities in the market remained limited, while their already low wages saw further cuts. In addition, the poorly implemented law that provides for the protection of the construction workers will now be drowned in the impending labour law codes along with another nominally helpful law, namely, Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979. On the pretext of ‘simplifying’ and ‘consolidating’ the labour laws – the government is curbing the scope of social, economic shields to workers altogether. About 84 percent of migrant workers are convinced by middle-men, euphemistically called labour contractors to migrate from their native villages to bigger cities with no proper documentation. As the construction industry expands, the maze of contracting and subcontracting has become complicated too.

As was my experience from the housing complex where I lived, it is clear that we are not a society known to be concerned about the conditions of our workers. Most of those whose toil ensures our economic growth and the great Indian housing dream are invisible to the elites , even when they live and work right under our noses. Welfare and concern for those trudging the last mile are some one else’s concern ; even as we race towards the Sustainable development Goals “leaving no-one behind”

Shantanu Dutta is a Former Air Force Doctor and is a development worker for the last 25 years.

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