Construction work is now second only to that of agriculture in terms of its employment potential in India. Many construction workers—both men and women– are widely known to toil and live in very difficult conditions, and hence there is special need to protect their rights and take important welfare measures for them. This is all the more true in the context of women construction workers.
In 1996 two protective laws laws relating to construction workers were enacted. Although these fell short of expectations in some important respects, on the whole these succeeded in bringing a lot to hope to construction workers. A cess was levied and boards were constituted in various states to use the funds collected from this to provide a range of benefits to construction workers. Implementation was tardy in some states to begin with but after directives from the Supreme Court and some High Courts to improve implementation there were increasing hopes among construction workers that the flow of benefits resulting from these benefits will improve.
As this writer had been involved in supportive reporting for this legislation right from the early campaigns, he kept monitoring the progress of these laws by visiting various colonies which had a heavy concentration of construction workers in Delhi. In the past from each visit he would return with at least some heart-warming stories of how people are benefiting from the new laws.
I still remember the smile on the face of the elderly couple who together had started getting pension of about Rs. 6500 and at last had this comforting feeling, after toiling for decades in construction work, that there is some regular support for them in their old age. I would also hear stories of school students getting scholarships, or families getting some help for a wedding, or of families getting significant relief after the main earner in the family had expired.
To be sure during these visits I also heard complaints from others regarding the delays in the processing of their applications or denial for a long time, but these would be balanced by the smiles that came from those who had received the various benefits. These smiles, along with reports of better implementation in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and news about Supreme Court’s latest directives to improve implementation, kept alive hopes in the 1996 law to deliver significant benefits to construction workers.
However recently during October 2023 when I visited three colonies of Delhi with a significant concentration of construction workers, this was the first time when I saw no smiles at all as not even one worker or family member spoke about recently receiving any new benefits. Instead there were too many complaints of their pension applications not being processed for too long as workers who had toiled for long decades waited to hear something regarding long overdue pension. There were unexplained delays in registration of workers and even more routine renewals.
As far as the scholarships for children of construction workers are concerned, people said that after 2018 this has stopped with them being not aware of any payment having been made in the last four years or so. Similarly payments as help for weddings as well as some other benefits too have stopped. Applicants with significant grievances are being sent from one place to another without their problems getting solved.
What is deeply disappointing for some activists has been that the honest have suffered while the dishonest may have benefited. When talk of construction worker benefits spread, some persons with wrong intentions came forward to get even those persons registered who had not done construction work, sharing the spoils with them. While this corruption was not checked at an early stage despite warnings being voiced by the genuine activists and unions, this later became an excuse for slowing down the entire work. As there is corruption and investigation into this is due, the argument went, there will be no (or very little) registration and processing for some time. In this way the entire noble work got derailed and delayed too much, leading to the recent day conditions where workers in Delhi, which is the most important centre of this effort, are so deeply disappointed.
A construction worker in Bawana JJ clony named Shanti showed me papers in which it is written that she has been sent pension funds during 2018 amounting to Rs. 97,800 while she says that she has not received a penny. Her neighbors confirmed this. An organization which has shown great commitment for helping workers– the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam (NMPS)– says that it has taken up the cases of several workers who are merely being sent from one office or official to another without their problems getting resolved. Although the NMPS is the most experienced organization on this issue involved in this from the early days of preparing various drafts of laws, yet even its members are not being registered and are being harassed in various ways. Bibiyani, an activist of Nirmana organization and some workers said that while scholarships for students under these laws have not been given for four years, at the same time the records for this are being collected from several students indicating that something is seriously wrong.
It is shocking to know from recent reports that the number of “current” construction workers registered with the Delhi government has dropped by about 90% in 17 months, from about a million in May 2022 to about 100,000 in October 2023. The number of the real workers present in the city is actually about the same, but this figure shows the drop in the numbers recorded with the Delhi Board for Construction Workers showing how in artificial ways the numbers eligible for welfare is being brought down, by not registering, by denying or delaying renewal, by first allowing corruption and then using this as a pretext for further delays and stalemate. As Subhash Bhatnagar, Secretary of NMPS, who has played a very important role in the campaigns for this legislation for 3 decades says “ It is important that the entire issue to be brought before the people in a transparent way so that the legislation enacted with so many hopes is not violated.”
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine and A Day in 2071.