Despite protective legislation and even an Apex Court mandate, construction workers remain a neglected lot. The gradual erosion of the workers’ hopes is not just deeply distressing but also a glaring violation of the clear directives given by the Supreme Court
When two path-breaking laws were passed in India in 1996 for construction workers, it raised the hopes of millions of the workers, as a range of benefits and welfare measures were promised. However, the overall feeling now is one of despair, despite a recent Supreme Court directive that the laws should be better implemented. Recent interviews with construction workers in Delhi showed that in general, the workers feel disappointed with the poor implementation of the laws, which has denied them the promised welfare measures.
A few years ago, when I interviewed these workers living in clusters like JJ Colony Bawana, Haiderpur, Shahbad Dairy and Dwarka, they seemed somewhat hopeful, despite the delayed and hesitant start to the implementation of the 1996 laws which saw the benefits reaching only a relatively small number of people. But with the declining level of implementation of the laws, the hope that the benefits would be available to all has also declined.
The promised benefits include old-age pension, scholarships for children of workers, grants at the time of marriage and child-birth, compensation for accidents, help for the family following the death of a worker, etc. The projected monthly pension of Rs 4000 can be a significant support, particularly if both husband and wife are recipients. But the problem is that only a few have received the benefit, with the rest being tangled in red tape.
When Jagdish Prasad neared the age of 60, he filed his pension papers, but even three years later there has been no response. Then there are people like Ganpat and Rajkumar who were getting the pension earlier but haven’t been paid for the last two months. Only about 6 per cent of those eligible for this pension are said to be getting the benefit, and even that may be an overestimation.
The condition of widows like Seeta Devi and Chanda Devi is particularly pathetic, as they don’t have even the minimum means to bring up their children while they wait endlessly for their claims to be processed. “There is no one to care for the poor,” says Chanda Devi. Accident victims like Bhagwati, who was badly injured but did not get any compensation or relief, either under normal processes or under the special construction workers’ law, are also struggling.
As for the marriage grants, the majority of claims filed have not been sanctioned months, even years, after the wedding. Access to education scholarships for children, a much-needed facility in these times of spiralling costs of school education, is also declining, the workers say.
The delays are despite the fact that labour activists are systematically pursuing most of the claims. Bibiyani, one such activist, says, “Workers have filed these claims with a lot of hope and we make every effort, in the face of many problems, to take them forward, even obtaining legal help, but the results have been very discouraging.”
Although the government presents estimates to show at least some progress, the reality is different, as a large number of non-workers have been registered, who often corner the limited funds released. This may be one reason why even the modest progress shown by government records is not reflected on the ground.
One activist says about her visits to government offices for claim processing: “They make us wait for a long time, keep having tea or take lunch breaks, then ask us to come some other time. I say, stop this hypocrisy and delay tactics. Tell us clearly what your intention is.” She was only voicing the thoughts of the many, many construction workers who have been kept waiting for ages.