Delhi must host the Games, but why should Dolly have to live in filth?

Dolly does not like her new home – a makeshift tent near the Trilokpuri drain in East Delhi. The stench from the drain – hardly five feet away from where she lives – turns her stomach. Mosquitoes buzz, bite and thrive here.  Mosquito bites dot her body. The five-year-old has not bathed for three days because her mother says that the limited water they get has to be used for other purposes.

Dolly used to live in the Yamuna catchment area with her parents, both farmers. Earlier this month, when the water level in the river crossed the rose above the danger-mark, more than three hundred families were relocated by the Delhi authorities to the tents erected along the U.P. Link road.

Five days back, cops asked them to shift to tents near the open sewer drain.

“They said that we should not go anywhere near the Yamuna till the Commonwealth Games are over,” says 25-year-old Santosh.

A native of Ghazipur district in Uttar Pradesh, Santosh has no work to do till the Games. He kills time chatting with fellow farmers and playing cards. “Thank God they are providing us with food twice a day.”

However, there is no fixed time when the food – cooked rice and a vegetable – is distributed in the tents. Asha, 8, gets her first meal at 12 noon. “Without giving her food, I cannot expect her to do any household work,” says Parvati, Asha’s mother.

Her son, Anuj, 5, has been down with fever since the past two days. “There is dirty water all over. There are goats, buffaloes and even stray dogs outside out tents. How do you expect our children to stay healthy here?” asks the mother.

Jai Prakash, 18, informs that once they were given rotten food. “When I complained, they said that eat this first, and then a doctor will attend to you.”

Tents are spread over a km stretch. Delhi Jal Board tankers are stationed at both ends of the stretch.

“Lack of potable water is the biggest problem we face here. These tankers are empty by noon time. After that if someone needs water, he has to ask for it from the neighboring tent,” says Jai Prakash, adding that the government could have shifted them to a better site.

He does not know if post-Games the government will allow him and other families to go back to the Yamuna catchment area. “It is government’s will. We really cannot say.”

This appeared on September 29, 2010


Living in filth!

More than three hundred people have been dumped on the bank of Trilokpuri drain. All the families, who were engaged in farming in the Yamuna catchment area have been  asked by the government to temporarily live in the makeshift tents till the time Commonwealth Games 2010 are over.

Delhi owes Rs 390 crore welfare money to construction workers

The Delhi government has not released over Rs 390 crore meant for the welfare of construction workers involved in various projects across the city.

Since 2005, the Delhi Welfare Board (WB) has collected around Rs 400 crore from various building agencies in the form of cess.

Out of this, only Rs 1.78 crore has been disbursed for the welfare of construction workers and their families.

This includes Rs.78 lakh for scholarships given in mid 2010 and the crèches for the children of construction workers funded by the welfare board.

The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 makes it mandatory for private as well as government building agencies (such as CPWD, PWD, DDA etc) to submit one percent of the total construction cost to the WB as cess. The money goes into the cess fund from which the construction laborers can derive benefits including medical assistance, maternity benefit and accident relief and scholarship for children’s education. However, the benefits are meant only for registered workers.

Currently, around 30, 000 workers of an estimated ten lakh work force in the capital are registered with the Board- constituted under the social welfare ministry in 1996.

Delhi’s social welfare minister Mangal Ram Singal as the chairman of the Board.

“Non- registration of workers is the biggest problem here. The board does not have adequate staff to get them registered. Further, the Board does not conduct timely meetings to assess the issue,” said Subhash Bhatnagar, labour representative on the board for the last eight years.

Bhatnagar says that the welfare board held only one meeting in 2009 and four meetings in 2007- 08.

According to the rules, the board should meet once in two months.

This appeared on August 12, 2010

Games that we play with the commons

“In the urban third world, poor people dread high profile international events—conferences, dignitary visits, sporting events, beauty contests, and international festivals—that prompt authorities to launch crusades to clean up the city.”
— ‘Planet of Slums’, Mike Davis

Shanti Devi, 72, has spent 30 years outside the Hanuman temple in Connaught place in the heart of the national capital.

A native of Lakhi Sarai, Purani Bazar near Patna, she knows a majority of the visitors at the temple by name.

Brawls over langar, eight-year-olds turning to cocaine, college students shooting hunger photographs, beggars bribing police constables, NGO workers with bundles of questionnaires, SMS alerts of a possible raid by the anti-begging squad… the septuagenarian has seen it all. “Apna khana peena, dawa daru, sab yahen se hai,” says Shanti Devi, who worked as construction labourer for three years and then at a Delhi-based NGO for two months, before turning to begging.

But trouble is lurking. Delhi is hosting the Commonwealth Games in October and the authorities are weeding out beggars from the city. In this drive the law is armed with the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act (BPBA), 1959. Active in 18 states, the law was extended to Delhi in 1960. This is the law that helps middle class and affluent Delhi to get over its moral dilemma every time a beggar thrusts his hand at traffic stops.

A mere ten minutes’ drive from the Hanuman Mandir is the office of the Department of Social Welfare, where officials are discussing the progress made by mobile courts, introduced in late 2009, to fast-track cases against beggars prosecuted under the vintage law.

These courts are in addition to the beggars’ court at Kingsway camp near DU’s North Campus. The courts, operating from hired vans, carry police constables and social welfare officers. (See next page). First-time offenders are either released after a warning or are detained in one of the 12 certified institutions (known as beggars’ homes among officials and ‘sewa kothi’ by beggars) for a period varying between one and three years.

Detention period is seven to 10 years for those convicted for a second or subsequent time.

Nearly 2,600 beggars are arrested and produced in such courts in Delhi every year. This year, till April, two mobile courts prosecuted more than 300 beggars, sending 170 of them to the 12 institutions.

S A Awaradi, director, department of social welfare (DSW)in the  Delhi goverrnment says they are looking at other methods including “open homes” and increasing the number of anti-begging squads. “A survey we ordered found that more than 60 percent of Delhi’s 60,000 beggars are from other states. If somehow we can send them back to their home state, we can surely tackle the issue,” he says.

But there are many who question this approach. Mohammad Tarique, a coordinator with Koshish, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) field action project on the destitute, says: “The government might lock them up during the Games, but that will not solve the larger issue.”

Delhi-based social activist Harsh Mander filed a writ petition in July 2009 challenging the  constitutionality of the BPBA. “Section 2 of the Act makes begging per se a crime. It violates sections 14, 19 and 21 of the constitution,” says Mander. “It is because of these sections in the Act that professional beggars are hardly caught. The squads end up arresting the destitute and those selling articles at traffic intersections. How can you call them beggars?” he asks.

A five-member committee appointed by the Bombay High Court in 1990 to assess the condition of beggars arrived at the same conclusions. The members visited beggars’ homes and collected data on facilities in these places. The members witnessed raids and court hearings and concluded that the squads arrested those they found in dirty clothes and wandering rather than those who were begging. “There are no criteria to decide as to who is a beggar, who is sick, physically handicapped or in need of economic help,” said the committee report.

The committee also recommended discontinuing the institution of the beggars’ court. “About 100 cases are disposed of in less than 15 minutes. When new cases came up, the judge just glanced at them and remanded them to custody.”

Agrees Raj Mangal Prasad, chairman of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), which tries children caught begging in Delhi. “These allegations are not baseless,” admits Prasad, who headed Pratidhi, a Delhi-based NGO working for the rights of homeless, before joining CWC.

The condition of the beggars’ homes, experts say, is another reason why Delhi has not been able to tackle the issue. There are 12 beggars’ homes in the capital that can house 3,600.

Ashok, 40, was arrested from near the Sai Baba temple on Lodhi Road in August 2008. He was sent to the Lampur Beggars Home. In March that year, eight inmates had died in the home. An inquiry conducted by the Narela sub-divisional magistrate found that 114 inmates suffered from gastroenteritis because of contaminated water.

Ashok stayed in the home for 15 days before he was bailed out by an NGO. “There was one toilet for 100 inmates who were packed in a room… I could not chew the food they gave. The elderly were in worse condition and not even provided food as they could not work,” he recalls.

“There is no pipeline for drinking water. Electricity is hardly available, sanitation is appalling,” says Afsar Ahmad Khan, coordinator, Human Rights Law Network.

“I have been working with beggars for more than 10 years now. I have never heard of a case where a beggar was rehabilitated in these homes,” says Bipin, a supervisor with Indo-Global Social Service Society, an NGO which conducts counseling sessions for the city’s beggars.

As a solution, Bipin suggests a new law should be framed after considering the profile of city’s beggars. “The BPBA has become a premise to arrest lepers, wanderers and old-aged. None asks them why they beg,” says he.

In the DSW study which covered more than 3,500 beggars, around 74 percent respondents said they begged as they could not find a job. Out of these, 34 percent were handicapped. Begging was found to be a ‘family profession’ for only 24%.

“We have to create a system where they don’t return to begging. The law should put responsibility on the government,” says Collin Gonsalves, senior Supreme Court lawyer who is arguing Mander’s case.

“Government steps are based on popular notions that beggars can never give up the habit and that they do it deliberately. If there is proper rehabilitation where they can hone their skills, then why would they continue begging?” he adds.

Shanti Devi, meanwhile, is nonchalant. She wants to know when she will get her voters’ ID card so she can avail old age pension. The raids don’t deter her. “Dekhi jayegi,” she says.  How else can she survive in a city that wants to lock her up so the world can play?

Shanti Devi out Hanuman Mandir in Delhi's Connaught place area

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?”

Of course, Delhi must hold the Games, but why must Munnabhai not sell fruits?

The other day I came across Munnabhai after a long while. In his late 50s, Munnabhai is a fruit vendor. His fruits are famous for their freshness in the entire Darya Ganj area of central Delhi. Munnabhai is also known for his warm nature. He shares a bond with all his customers. He remembers what they bought last time; at what time in the day they had come last and what do they buy more often. One of the jolliest persons I have ever seen. Talking to him, one can forget all those worries and things which collectively increase the blood pressure.

He was back in Delhi after spending five years in his home town, Rampur in Uttar Pradesh. This time he was looking tired. “Kaise hain Munnabhai?” I asked. He kept on putting the apples on the scale without answering me. “Sab kheriyat?” I asked.

“Ye (read government) redhi lagne denge yahaan ya nahin? Sab bata rahein hain ke hamein bhaga denge…khel hone waale hain (Will the government allow us to continue with our business? I have heard that they will not, because of the Commonwealth Games),” he said, sending me in a tizzy. I had never seen that man so helpless. And I had no answer to his question, for I don’t know what the government has planned for thousands like Munnabhai who are present in every nook and corner of Delhi. Without whom the city just cannot survive. Who are away from their states to feed us. Whose faces and voices we have been living with for years. So much so that housewives recognise them from their shouts in the streets. In many parts of the city, vendors’ street-calls mark the beginning of the day. They have become us in all these years.

We have no clue what we will do if one fine day we discover that all those like Munnabhai have vanished. Will we all go to the nearest sabzi mandi? For some, it is a walking distance from home but a majority of us would have to spend considerable time , money and energy to go the vegetable market. Will we settle for fruits and vegetables sold by cooperatives like Mother Dairy? Or will shopping malls start stocking these items till the vendors like Munnabhai are kept of the picture perfect that they claim Delhi is.

Equally clueless are Munnabhai and his fellow vendors. They have not heard from the authorities. They just read in newspapers that they would have to make way for the foreign delegates and athletes who will be in Delhi for 12 days during the Games. The government schemes for them, if any, have not reached them. As you read this, hundreds of them would have boarded trains for their hometowns till the time the capital once again becomes ready to welcome them with open arms the way it has done for decades. You see, they cannot survive 12 days in this future Shanghai without livelihood.

Many of them are sole bread winners of their family. Sometimes they skip their meals so that their families back home can eat. I imagine Delhi as an ocean but the tributaries contributing to it are being temporarily cut off.
Street vendors who are left here are under a constant fear that any moment the authorities will ask them to wind up and go back. They closely listen in to their customers’ conversations for any update on CWG preparations. Every time they hear about the government’s drive against the beggars and the destitute, they think they are the next. Not having authentic information either way is hurting them more than any certainty of being shunted out.

For a moment, put yourself in the place of those like Munnabhai who are as much part of this city as the chief minister and the mayor are. Imagine waking up every morning with the fear that today you will be thrown out of the city. Imagine things that will happen to you after that. Where will you live? How will you survive? What will you tell your family? How will you feed your children?