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Job opportunities decreasing, wages remain low: Delhi construction workers' plight

By Bharat Dogra*  

It was about 32 years back that a hut colony in posh Prashant Vihar area of Delhi was demolished. It was after a great struggle that the people evicted from here could get alternative plots that were not too far away from their earlier colony. Nirmana, an organization of construction workers, played an important role in helping the evicted people to get this alternative land.
At that time it was a big relief to get this alternative land, even though the plots given to them were very small ones of 10X8 feet size. The people worked hard to construct new houses, often constructing two floors so that the family could be accommodated in the small plots.
However a recent visit revealed that people are rather disheartened now by a number of adverse factors. They have not been given the proper allotment papers yet. There is still no sewer system here. They have to use public toilets constructed some distance away which can sometimes be quite messy. There is still no provision of supplying clean drinking water in taps. They have to make do with the inadequate supply sent by tankers which is not accessible to all households. Hence several people still have to walk a considerable distance to fetch clean drinking water but here too objection is sometimes raised by people to whom these water sources belong. The local groundwater is brackish and its supply is tardy too. Although this is used for bathing and washing clothes, this can be harmful for skin, some people here complain. People have to dispose of their garbage on their own. An even bigger problem is the dirty water spilling from the drains and waterlogging the streets frequently. Even in November with no rains at all some of the streets were waterlogged.
Several of the workers here had played an important role in the struggles of construction workers for proper implementation of welfare laws. When initial benefits started reaching some of the workers there was a lot of hope among workers at that time, but more recently this hope has suffered as implementation of construction labor laws has deteriorated badly. As a result, even some of those who were in the forefront of the struggle are unable to get welfare benefits. Mahendra, who contributed much to the struggle, is now eligible for a pension under the welfare laws but all papers submitted properly by him have not yielded any results yet.
Ramrati Devi was getting a pension under a different scheme earlier but this stopped suddenly and all her numerous applications have not had the desirable result. Sheela, an elderly lady involved with several struggles in her younger days, has not been able to draw the food grain ration recently because of biometrics related problems. Many workers have labor card related problems or Aadhar card related problems.
In fact with various identity cards becoming increasingly important, a lot of the time and effort of the people is being spent in getting the papers right, regardless of whether the papers enable them to actually access welfare benefits or not. They are told all the time that the systems are being perfected online, but their own experience has been of getting increasingly frustrated by the ‘perfected system’.
Workers find it hard to understand why pollution related ban on their employment is imposed so widely. As Ram Vilas, a worker, says—I can understand that a demolition results in a lot of dust, but there are so many aspects of our work including plumbing, carpentry, masonry, painting and whitewashing which does not involve any pollution so we do not understand why a ban is imposed so widely. Has there been some serious understanding in all this, he wonders, which may be proving very costly for workers.
On the whole employment opportunities have decreased in recent times and wages have been low, particularly when see in the context of the inflationary trends. People feel demoralized when they are unable to meet basic needs despite working very hard and despite being willing to contribute even more if work at a decent wage is available.
In fact there is a strong need for linking the poor and highly underemployed people of such colonies to a big, well-planned program of urban regeneration and greening. As can be seen clearly in these colonies there is need for much work to be taken up and there are people just waiting for such creative work opportunities; the challenge is to link the two, the untapped potential of the people to the unmet needs of the city.
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*Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Man over Machine”, “Protecting Earth for Children” and “A Day in 2071”

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