So what about ‘NATIONAL PRIDE’?

Delhi High Court's high-powered panel vindicates Hardnews story on the abysmal state of workers in the commonwealth games construction sites and the blatant violation of fundamental rights
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi

"Extreme cold does not affect poor people with nothing in their bellies," says Asit Mahato, as he gets busy digging with a shovel. Despite the chill, sweat drips down his forehead. He came to Delhi in 2008. As jobs became scarce in his hometown, it became a fight for survival for his family. Mahato says he was lured with the promise of food and Rs 100 'every week'. The pimp who lured him paid Rs 3,000 as advance to Mahato's family in Murshidabad in West Bengal. The train fare too. This was predictably 'snatched' back, via less wages, daily cuts and low wages etc.

With Commonwealth Games (CWG) round the corner, Delhi is gearing up to showcase India as a 'world class' city. The entire city has been literally dug up, rebuilt and spruced up. This notion of 'national pride' has led to the organised exploitation of tens of thousands of faceless, marginal, poor Indians like Mahato, who are building this commonwealth of dreams. "I have never seen such urgency. We are made to work like machines," says Mahato.

It was only after the Peoples' Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) did a fact-finding initiative at the games village on the Yamuna's flood plains that gory tales of exploitation started coming. Taking cognisance of PUDR's findings, the Delhi High Court has set up a high level inquiry commission to look into this gross violation of human rights and labour laws.

The Supreme Court had also earlier asked the Delhi government to provide shelters for the 1.5 lakh plus homeless people in the city. Many of them were rendered homeless in stunningly freezing conditions because their night shelter was demolished for 'beautification'  for the upcoming games. One of the homeless, a balloon seller, died on the pavement.  Activists say, over 25 people died; official death count touching 12.

Now, Mahato has the experience of working on almost all the construction sites in the city. His stint at various sites never lasted for more than two months. Even after toiling for months, Mahato still gets Rs 100 a week and food. The billions spent on the games has not been able to brighten the prospects of the migrant workers who are building these projects, living in sub-human conditions, with no rights, facilities or social safety nets.

There are around 8 lakh migrant workers in Delhi, including those working at the games sites. These workers remain at the mercy of the jamadar (the middle man) who brings them to Delhi. The principal contractor 'decentralises' the work to other tekedars/contractors. Reportedly, most of these thekedars and jamadars are not registered under Section 12 of the Contract Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1970 (CLA), including at the games site.

Workers are not on the official rolls of the company. To evade accountability, the companies employ mostly skilled labourers, that is, crane operators or mechanics, as regular employees. It is this lot which gets employment benefits, the rest are left out. They don't have any job proof, nor are given wage slips. Often, minimum wages are not paid.  "These workers are like slaves," says a DDA engineer at the Siri Fort games site. He says he has no knowledge of wages.

The wage payment process is erratic; often, workers have to wait for two to three months to claim their dues. Even when wages are paid, workers are not paid the legal minimum wages. An unskilled construction worker gets around Rs 85-100 for 8 hours of work.

 In the mad rush to finish construction, workers are forced to work overtime. "I get Rs 100 everyday and Rs 12 for each hour of overtime," says Rajiv, a worker at the Rs 300 crore Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. According to law, workers are entitled to get double the rate of normal wage for overtime work.

At a distance from Rajiv, some women are seen carrying cane baskets of stones on their heads. Of the total workforce, 5-10 per cent are women. Reportedly, the women are paid 20 per cent less than their male counterparts. Not giving equal wages to male and female workers for the same work is a clear violation of the Equal Remuneration Act, 1946. This is also a violation of the Right to Equality under Article 14 of the Constitution, the PUDR report points out.

 Many children are seen working at different stadia. The women are coaxed to bring their children to work in lieu of extra food. "To get the work done, we had to even give burgers and cold drinks. Can you imagine?" remarked a DDA engineer. Recently, the prestigious Guardian of London carried graphic pictures of poor, half-clad children working with spades in their hands, or carrying loads, at the JN stadium. The photo feature said that labourers are being paid below the minimum wage while working and living in sub-standard conditions. The Guardian said, "Children accompany their parents to the work site where, if they are prepared to work, they will be paid with bread and milk and receive dinner from the contractor."
 
Medical facilities exist on paper, most injured workers are chucked out. Sometimes, workers are 'allowed' to work without safety equipment like helmets, shoes, safety belt. Nearly 60 people have lost their lives and scores have been injured in this mad frenzy to manage impossible deadlines.

Trade unions too don't exist, or are not allowed to function. Workers are not allowed to work for more than two to three months at one site so that they can't unionise, or collectively ask for better living and work conditions. "It has become extremely difficult for us to enter these sites. We constantly face threats and intimidation by the contractor's goons," says Mohan Lal of CITU.

Most of these 'Indian citizens' live in abysmal, sub-human conditions. In the freezing cold of Delhi, they are forced to live in dilapidated, dingy, pathetically small, often, open-to-sky tin shacks and tattered tents of plastic sheets which leak in rains. Devoid of basic dignity, these workers' camps have no toilet facilities, no sanitation systems, no kitchens, clean drinking water or electricity. A few bulbs hang giving a semblance of light, while children eternally stay outside the ghetto, including women, who cook food outside. These are the most tragic sights of this multi-billion games, whereby thousands of unorganised migrant workers are made to live in such humiliating and degrading conditions, with a few fundamental rights.

 

More hard-hitting stories on commonwealth games and construction workers

Nothing common about this wealth 
http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2010/02/3466
Conquerors of the golden city
http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2010/03/3490
Sweat and tears (on Metro workers)
http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2009/11/3350
The nation builders (on Metro workers)
http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2009/08/3142

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2010