Delhi’s beauty is skin deep and comes very cheap

Aalam thought his life would change for the better when he met a construction labour contractor in his village in Bihar’s Bhagalpur district six months ago. The contractor asked him if he was interested in working in Delhi. He was told that the work would go on for around eight months and he would get his wages on time.

Aalam did not have too many options—he was out of work—so he boarded the train to Delhi. Next morning, he was taken to the ridge area around
Delhi University, one of the many places where construction activity for the Commonwealth Games 2010 was on in full swing.

Thus 20-year-old Aalam joined a sea of workers, of all age groups and mainly from Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar, who are sweating out in 45-plus degree Celsius temperatures to beat the clock and finish long-delayed projects before the Games begin.

Aalam and others are grateful for having found work. But are they happy with their work environment? What about their life beyond work hours? How and where do they live, for example, for this period of eight months or so?

These were the questions  the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), a Delhi-based civil rights group, and two others raised in a public interest litigation before the Delhi High Court.

“We asked for the court’s intervention as anything else would not have worked in this case. It is about getting the
labourers their rights,” said Indrajeet Jha, member, PUDR.

Following the  PIL, the court, on February 3 this year, appointed a monitoring committee to redress the grievances of construction workers. Its members were Delhi labour secretary RD Srivastava, Delhi labour commissioner AK Singh, former Indian ambassador to the UN Arundhati Ghose and NHRC special rapporteur Lakshmidhar Mishra.

A month and a half later, the committee submitted a 102-page report to the court. For starters, the committee found it difficult to confirm if minimum wages were paid to all workers and to verify the muster rolls.

The report said that the system was open to abuse as the majority of the employers were not aware of various rules and regulations meant for construction workers.

As for the shanties where Aalam and others have put up, the report said: “Lack of overall hygiene, environmental sanitation and cleanliness was deplorable.”

The committee recommended that the court should direct all the employers to ensure that minimum wages were paid to the workers and hygienic working and living conditions were provided.

“Direct the welfare board to start a time-bound programme for registration of all construction workers, preceded, if necessary, by a wide-ranging and easily understandable campaign among the workers and process the request for assistance on an urgent basis,” it said.

Among the 10 recommendations were the disbursement of unpaid wages to workers and considering punishing those employers who violated the laws.

That should have made Aalam happy, finally. It did not. Two months after the report was submitted, his life has not changed a bit.

He still gets Rs 150 a day for doing a 12-hour shift; there is no extra payment for overtime. “About a week ago, I heard that our wages would be increased. But my contractor said he got no such orders,” said Aalam, who is a mistri, or skilled labourer, and should be getting Rs 228 per day, as per the law.

He has not heard of a wage slip. He continues to live in a 4×6 feet tent on the roadside, with the road serving as a playground for his three kids.
There is no one to look after the children (one of them is only six months old), when Aalam is out for work with wife Afsana and brother-in-law Salim.

Meals are cooked on an earthen stove, the smoke emanating from which does not make them cough. Electricity is taken from a connection made to the power cables above the tent. When I tell him that it is theft of electricity, he asks me to check with his jamadar (contractor).

Aalam has no idea that he is working on a project that is part of a multi-billion crore sports jamboree to be held in October. Has he heard of the Commonwealth Games? “No,” he replies.

The only change is that now when he is at work he does not leave any cash in his squatter. “Last week, there was a theft here. About Rs 2,500 and a mobile phone were stolen,” he says, pointing to the tent next to his.

From his fellow workers, Aalam heard that they would soon get identity cards. When he asked his contractor,  the latter grinned and asked him to get back to work.

“Are you talking about this?” asks 56-year-old Punuva, who goes by a single name, while handing us his voter identity card. Punuva is a beldaar, or semi-skilled labourer, from Tigamgarh district in Madhya Pradesh. He gets Rs 120 a day for his work. Legally, he is entitled to get more.

Part of the governance problem here is that the Games preparations fall under the jurisdiction of as many as nine agencies, including the New Delhi Municipal Council, Municipal Corporation of Delhi, Delhi International Airport Ltd and Delhi Metro Rail Corporation. There are 48 private establishments involved in hiring workers.

The Delhi government, in its response to a high court notice, had asked all agencies involved in hiring workers for the Games to submit detailed lists of workers at various construction sites, along with their contractors.

On April 28, Najmi Waziri, the government’s standing counsel, told the court that more than 26,000 workers were registered and around 2,000 passbooks were issued. Registration of rest of the workers, Waziri said, was under way.

Acting on the court’s orders, the labour department issued notices to the authorities involved in the construction work. Only the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and the Delhi government gave “partial reply” to the notice.

The government also said that it would conduct awareness camps for the workers to inform them about their rights.

No worker at the two sites I visited – the ridge area around Delhi University and Indira Gandhi indoor stadium – could confirm to having attended any such camp.

“Even if they conduct such camps, what purpose will it serve?” said Indrajeet Jha, “They should have done it long ago.”

Committee member Arundhati Ghose told Governance Now that she was yet to witness any change on the ground. “I do not see anything happening. We continue to build Delhi on the back of these migrants who are deprived of their constitutional rights,” says Ghose, who believes that part of the problem lies in multiplicity of laws for construction workers.

“While preparing our report, we found out that there are 251 laws and regulations for the benefit of these workers. It is difficult for the regulators to regulate them,” she says.

Back in his jhuggi, Aalam may not be happy but he is satisfied as he is at least getting his wages on time. “What more can I ask for?”

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