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Landless labourers? Busting the myth of the migrant in the construction economy

[By Shweta Mahendra Chandrashekhar]

I was born in Lonavala and brought up in Pune, both places located in the western region of India. Some of the vivid memories I have of my childhood include visits to numerous tunnel construction sites in India (Pune-Mumbai Expressway, Konk­­an Railway, Delhi Metro). My father’s infrastructure firm has been in the business of building tunnels for more than 35 years and many of our family trips in the 1990s & 2000s included such visits. Since most of the sites were away from the city and amid mountains and forests, it was a welcome break from the din and bustle of daily city life. As a young girl, I used to interact enthusiastically with the site supervisors, engineers and workers, sometimes even accompanying my father deep into the freshly excavated tunnels.

Image credit: Safal karki

My most recent visit (December, 2019) to a tunnel construction site was in Karwar (Karnataka) near an old highway bridge constructed by the British on the National Highway (NH-4), dubbed by locals as ‘London Bridge’. My father’s company was in the middle of a time-bound construction project of a twin tube tunnel for NH-4. There were more than 250 construction workers at the site, most of them skilled migrants from the states of Odisha, Jharkhand & West Bengal. Recently, my father gave me a first-hand account of the impact of the COVID pandemic and nationwide lockdown on the construction sector:

“My company is based in Pune. I travel to Karwar frequently, usually stay there for a fortnight and come back to Pune. The construction work of tunnels is different from other works as it goes on round the clock and in three shifts per day. On the late evening of 24th March, my mobile phone was ringing constantly. Akash Rana, my site engineer was on the phone and he informed me that a nationwide lockdown had just been announced by the Prime Minister. My first reaction to this national emergency was to go to the site immediately (normally I would retire after meditation for half an hour in the evening). I reached the site and as the news had unfolded on media, the workers were agitated. While I stayed in my guest house in Karwar, several of my site engineers were accommodated in another guest house. The drillers, blasters and other crew members stayed at site where we had erected temporary structures on government land allotted to us for erection of the site office. Most migrant workers usually stay for six months, return to their native homes for farming and come back again. Some of the workers had already booked tickets to return home. I assured them that it’s a matter of 30-40 days and I would take care of their compensation and ration during this period. These workers had migrated for a better life for their families. They were not landless labourers. They had agricultural land in their villages and associated animal husbandry. They have migrated to earn more as the local economy had little to offer whereas the construction sites gave them a variety of jobs and higher pay scales. A month’s supply of ration for staff mess was immediately procured. The lockdown was severe, and it was challenging to maintain the supply line of ration as law enforcement agencies didn’t allow any vehicles on road. The next day I rushed to the District Collector’s office and requested them to issue us passes so that we were not obstructed by the law enforcement agencies to carry rations and medical supplies to the workers. The pass allowed us to move four wheelers with rations. Local government’s efforts were encouraging, and I received a call from a state intelligence officer asking me about the number of migrant workers with me along with their home address. The impact of lockdown on infrastructure projects was imminent and all work was stalled. With the wisdom of hindsight, it appears that infrastructure projects should have been exempted from the massive lockdown. Most of the construction sites were away from urban areas, workers could have stayed at the respective sites and projects could go on without any interference. Almost a month later, we faced a strong demand from the site workers to return home. Some of them had genuine reasons to be home as monsoon was closing in and they had to look after their agricultural land for the grains would be part of their year-long supply of rations. We hired two private buses. After receiving permission from the government of Karnataka, one left for Odisha and another for Bihar.”

The construction industry has been heavily affected due to a lack of workers. According to a newspaper report :

“The departure of migrant workers in the last two months has depleted 75 per cent workforce employed at different construction sites of Pune Metro and has slowed the progress to just about 20 to 25 per cent of the usual capacity, as per MahaMetro officials.”

In the popular media and common-sense view, the migrant construction workers are often stereotyped as landless labourers who have no choice but to migrate from their home states. However, it is worth investigating and analysing how many actually do belong to this category. As recorded in my father’s chronicle, many workers are landholding farmers, who had consciously decided to migrate for better prospects. This dual role of the migrants – as farmers and construction workers – has a potential to disrupt the common perception of them as landless labourers solely concerned with subsistence and without any aspiration for upward mobility. In his essay ‘The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition’, Arjun Appadurai considers the capacity to aspire as a cultural capacity and not just an economic one. He says:

“Aspirations certainly have something to do with wants, preferences, choices, and calculations. And because these factors have been assigned to the discipline of economics, to the domain of the market and to the level of the individual actor (all approximate characterizations), they have been largely invisible in the study of culture. To repatriate them into the domain of the culture, we need to begin by noting that aspirations form parts of wider ethical and metaphysical ideas which derive from larger cultural norms.”

The hardship faced by the migrants during their journey from cities to villages has been well documented in the media. Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) has published three reports, so far, describing the migrants’ distress. Many steps have been taken by central, state and local governments to provide relief in the form of Shramik trains, free food grains, cash transfers and employment opportunities. The allocation for MGNREGA, a program that enhances livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of wage employment to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work, was increased by Rs. 40,000 crores (5,334 million USD). Migrants, who returned to their home states, have created the additional demand for work under MGNREGA and states like Rajasthan have reported record employment. Moreover, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also launched Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (GKRA), a program to ensure employment in mission mode in 116 districts across six states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha) where the maximum number of migrant workers have returned. MGNREGA generates employment mainly for unskilled workers and is provided each year since it was enacted as a law. However, GKRA is a one-time program that brings together 25 categories of ongoing work. It will continue for 125 days and is aimed at skilled workers who have returned to their native places because of the lockdown. Mission mode implies that GKRA employment will be rapidly generated by an active coordination of 11 central government ministries so that ongoing works which were progressing at a normal pace as per schedule, are now fast-tracked to transform the challenge presented by the pandemic into an opportunity to quickly create infrastructure in rural areas. The basket of a wide variety of works in GKRA will ensure that each migrant worker is able to get an opportunity of employment according to her / his skill.

Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Social welfare measures for the construction workers are enshrined in the Building and Other Constructions Workers (BOCW) (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996. The preamble of the BOCW Act explains: “An act to regulate the employment and conditions of service of building and other construction workers and to provide for their safety, health and welfare measures and for other matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” The BOCW Act establishes Welfare Boards in each state to provide financial and medical assistance to construction workers.

Various estimates put the total number of construction workers in the range of 50-60 million while the number of registered construction workers is only 35 million. So far, the state governments have disbursed a substantial amount of Rs. 4957 crores (661 million USD) cash assistance to approximately 20 million registered construction workers across the country during the lockdown. About 17.5 million of these transactions were done directly into the bank accounts of the workers through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT). However, the relief provided to construction workers has not been entirely smooth. Telephonic interviews, conducted by Jan Sahas (NGO), with 3,196 migrant construction workers from north and central India between 27th­­- 29th March 2020 found that 94 % of interviewed workers did not have BOCW cards, making them ineligible for any transfer. Further, 14 % did not have ration cards and 17 % did not have bank accounts. Clearly, not every BOCW is registered with the Welfare Boards and not every registered BOCW has benefitted from cash transfer. The criteria for registration are determined by the state governments. For example, in Delhi, a certificate from a registered trade union suffices to get a construction worker registered with the state BOCW Welfare Board, while for a worker in Uttar Pradesh, a builder’s certificate specifying that she / he was involved with the construction activity for 90 days in the previous 12 months is required. Often the builders / contractors do not issue such certificates, making workers ineligible for registration with the board. In the state of Delhi, the labour department last year made the registration process more extensive, requiring every applicant to fill out a 12-page form. In addition, many workers routinely fall off the grid of the safety net due to their inability to stick to the compulsory annual renewal. For example, the number of registered construction workers in Delhi fell from over 300,000 to 40,000 between 2015 and 2020.

In order to address this issue, the central government has planned multiple measures as under:

Now-a-days, most of the welfare schemes of central, state and local governments are operated as a Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) program where cash is transferred directly in the bank accounts of beneficiaries. The DBT program is built on the convergence of Jan Dhan Bank Account, Aadhar Card (biometric-authenticated unique identification number) and Mobile Phone Number and is called the JAM trinity in popular parlance. A minimum digital literacy is therefore necessary for workers to harness the internet for availing banking services from their mobile phones. Apart from the government’s flagship Digital India program, there are many other initiatives taken by private sector to improve digital literacy among women. Google India and Tata Trusts’ initiative Internet Saathi has benefited 17 million women in rural India. National Digital Literacy Mission by NASSCOM Fo­undation has been initiated with the vision to empower at least one person per household with crucial digital literacy skills by 2020.

A minimum level of digital literacy alone is not enough. It should be bolstered with a minimum financial literacy (basic knowledge of banking operations) and a minimum civic literacy (basic knowledge of govt. schemes). For example, how many workers are aware that there are 16 welfare schemes run by the Govt. of Maharashtra for BOCW ? Do they know that they are entitled to home journey allowance including payment of wages during the period of journey according to section 15 of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment & Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 ? Are they aware that Kerala government provides insurance and free medical treatment to migrant workers? (see also Siddharth de Souza’s blog post on this issue). However, it will be premature to assume that this is entirely a literacy or awareness issue. It could also be that the workers distrust the enforcement of these measures or they don’t want to be profiled so they don’t get identity cards which can allow them to capitalize on these initiatives. Therefore, this topic requires further investigation and analysis. 

When the lockdown is lifted, I plan to visit another construction site in Solapur where my father’s firm has started operations. According to American sociologist Charles Wright Mills, sociology should be about examining the biographies of individuals in the context of history of societies. It would be worthwhile to understand the concerns of female workers in the construction sector and their methods to organize themselves. By contextualizing this understanding in the backdrop of their usage of digital platforms, perhaps a new narrative can be constructed!