Rebuilding lives that build India

As India celebrates its 67th Independence Day, the spotlight is inevitably on the grand narrative. Cacophonous and messy it may be, but India is still a functioning democracy.

That is no mean feat for a country of more than a billion people with myriad ethnicities, languages, religions, cultures and contradictions. But now, against the grim backdrop of an economic slowdown, political turmoil, corruption scandals and acute public despondency, this cherished idea of India needs a booster shot of action points.
What will it take to build the India that lives up to the grand narrative we want to tell the next generation? It is a long list. Undoubtedly, whichever way one looks at it, economic growth must be part of the big picture. There is an avalanche of analyses on what is wrong with the economy, and what needs to be done. But it is useful to also look at the small picture.
The construction industry tellingly illustrates the vital need to keep both in sight. The big picture suggests that it is the big white hope of this country. Everywhere you go, there are buildings coming up or being renovated. Not a day passes without the relentless flow of SMSes from real estate companies offering the “last few units of fully furnished studios”. India’s construction industry is growing at around 12 per cent annually. Economists like to point out the industry’s critical role as a massive job-creator.
Indeed, the construction industry has been more resilient than others. It is expanding even amidst a general economic slowdown. According to a recent estimate, there are approximately 45 million Indians who work in building and other construction work — up from about 18 million a decade ago. This is happening at a time when jobs in all other sectors — agriculture, industry, services — are falling or growing slowly.
But there is the other side to India’s construction boom that is equally hard to miss. Those who are commandeered to build the strong, new India are temporary workers, typically huddling together in temporary homes of plastic and tarpaulin. Their barefoot, scantily-clothed, scrawny, rust-haired children roam the streets nearby.
Is it tearfully sentimental to point this out on the eve of Independence Day? In doing so, does one risk being labelled “anti-growth”? The unvarnished truth is that construction work mostly remains a temporary wage earner for landless farm labourers. It is informal work. It is harsh. It is often dangerous. And there are big differences between the wages of men and women.
Even the ministry of labour and employment acknowledges the grim reality underlying this booming industry. In an official statement on September 26, 2012, it described labour engaged in construction work as “basically unskilled, migrant, socially backward, uneducated with low bargaining power”. It also said that such work is of “temporary nature and involves inherent risk to the life and limb of the workers”.
In a country which aspires to be an economic powerhouse in the 21st century, does it have to be this way? The answer should be an unequivocal “no”. A better deal for the builders of a New India would not bankrupt the construction industry. Nor is it a radical thought. It is simply a matter of following the law of the land.
Legislation exists for regulating the working conditions and welfare of these workers. The Building and Other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act and the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, for example, have laudable provisions. The acts apply to every establishment which employs 10 or more construction workers. Under the provisions of the acts, state governments have to constitute welfare boards which are mandated to provide immediate assistance to a beneficiary in case of an accident, offer pensions to workers who are over 60, provide financial assistance for education of children, meet medical expenses for major ailments, pay maternity benefits and so on. In each state, these special welfare boards are funded by a tax of up to two per cent on building costs. But few workers are aware of their rights and implementation is weak and uneven. Recently, data sourced through Right to Information queries revealed that in Haryana, a realty hot spot, only about three per cent of the funds amassed by the Haryana Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board as labour cess has been used. The labour department levies one per cent of the construction cost on builders and factory owners for the welfare of construction labourers. But then comes the catch. The rules say a worker has to be registered with the labour department for three-five years to benefit from the funds under various schemes. However, most labourers are migrants from the countryside who work on very short-term informal contracts, often verbal. The labourers move between construction sites and their homes back in the village, they also move from city to city and usually remain unregistered.
In Hyderabad, there is a lot of construction activity but most of the workers are rural migrants and the percentage of registered labourers is dismal. The labour department says it is short staffed. Officials admit there is no strong mechanism in place for the collection of cess.
The Central government now says it wants states to strictly enforce existing laws and it wants “social partners” to pitch in to create better working conditions for construction workers. Non-governmental organisations and committed individuals, many of them retired from active working life, are already doing so, though it is not an easy task and red tape is as constricting as before.
Meanwhile, the labourers live their transient lives and we are back to the twin narratives of the big picture, the small picture and the nuts and bolts of building a better future. But time is running short and social tensions exploding in a myriad forms across the country suggest that course correction is a priority. One of the first steps we could take is to actually begin to “see” the millions who are powering India’s urban growth story just as clearly as we “see” the buildings they raise.

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at

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