With a booming economy and increased purchasing power, the demand for housing, infrastructure & allied services in our urban areas has increase manifold. The real estate & construction sector is in overdrive to cater to this increased demand and consequently, opportunity. Housing & infrastructure projects are sprouting up all over our cityscapes. Multi-storeyed buildings, rising up to the skies, are being readied to meet the demand of the urban consumers, large scale road projects and flyovers are changing the face of our cities. We only see these concrete & steel structures rising up at a frenetic pace. But behind this frenzied activity, there is an army of unseen labourers, who toil away to convert these paper dreams into reality.
They are the faceless millions who form a behind the scenes economy, who no one likes to talk about or acknowledge. They are the countless numbers who have left behind their villages & agricultural backgrounds in search of a more stable and satisfying life. Yet, on reaching the cities, they are taken en mass to construction sites, where they toil away for over 12 to 14 hours per day in extremely demanding work environments, with scant regard to their safety and needs. Most of the companies engaged in the construction industry, apart from the large well established companies, do not follow basic safety norms, neither do they pay attention to the welfare of the labourers, often exploiting them to maximise profits.
These labourers are most often put up in shabbily erected labour colonies, where they are crammed into minimal spaces, often tin covered shelters, which offer scant protection to the baking heat in the summer nor against the water from the rains or the bitter cold. They are devoid of basic necessities & services, with often rudimentary unhygienic sanitary conditions present in the so called accommodations. The impacts of these demanding environments are especially felt on families. Most often, the women are also employed along with their men in construction sites, just to make ends meet. This often places them in a sticky situation, especially when it comes to taking care of their children and infants. The women are forced to take the toddlers along with them to the construction sites, where the kids grow up amongst the gravel, dust, machineries & noises. Most often, the situation becomes dangerous and accidents are not unheard off. However, the greater impact & loss is that these kids do not get the opportunity to go to a school, as theirs’ is a migrant life, moving from one construction site to another.
This migrant population affects the carrying capacity of our urban areas a lot. We are all aware of the pathetic flight of the construction labourers in places like Dubai during the construction boom. The situation in a place like India is slightly different, as the labourers coming into the cities lead to large scale urbanisation and mainly due to the fact that, unlike Dubai where the workers return to their native countries after the work, here, the workers become a permanent part of the city, often settling down in slums and other unorganised settlements. The urban areas are thus forever expanding, bursting at its seams, though not due to the influx of the workers alone. The lack of planning is highly evident as the sprawl keeps on increasing. The overall effect of this is a loss in quality of liveable spaces, more strain on resources and ultimately the quality of urban life.
The efforts to regulate the construction industry have led to an increased awareness of Environment, Health & Safety issues regarding the workers. Yet, in spite of this, at the ground level, the situation hasn’t improved a lot. There are rules for giving Provident fund and insurance to the workers, as stipulated by the government, and also minimum wages for the labourers. However, these most often remain on paper and are not implemented. Even if they are followed by the companies, the benefits to the workers are not paid by the contractors and middlemen who employ the workers at site. The workers thus stand to lose. With regards to accidents in the construction sites, the situation is even worse. Even though insurance exists in name, in the event of any accident, the worker is left to fend for himself. He may be taken to the hospital but the costs may not be borne by the employers. The indirect effect on the worker due to loss of income during the hospitalisation and recovery periods is even more unbearable and damaging.
It is thus high time that we paid increased attention to the issues surrounding the labourers in the construction industry. As a start, a better implementation and compliance of policies & regulations which are already framed will go a long way in addressing some major concerns. Simultaneously, we need to analyse the impact on urbanisation and the effects on our urban spaces, which will help us in arriving at more wholistic solutions which are suited to our context. We need to ensure that we start gradually moving towards a more organised construction sector, which will ensure sustainable and equitable growth for everyone. Merely turning a blind eye towards the ground realities and procrastination will only further compound the problems.