New Delhi: Vinod Mistry is sitting at a labour chowk—a place where men gather in search of construction jobs —in south Delhi’s Kotla Mubarakpur neighbourhood. He hasn’t found work in the six days he has waited at the spot for a contractor to hire him. Mistry is surrounded by 10 other men, all from villages around Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh.

Nearly 200 more men are waiting similarly at various points on the road that leads from Kotla Mubarakpur to Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, where a Rs550 crore renovation is under way for the October 2010 Commonwealth Games. It’s already 11am, and it looks like most of them will have to go another day without work.

“We used to get between 15 and 20 days of work (every month) till a year ago. But this year has been bad, we’re getting much less work," says Mistry, 30, who has left his wife and children behind in his village and come to the capital for work.

With less than a year left, work is being accelerated on Commonwealth Games venues and city infrastructure as New Delhi prepares to host its biggest sporting spectacular since the 1982 Asian Games. For construction workers, though, it hasn’t meant boom times.

Slow progress: A January photo of Shivaji Stadium in New Delhi. With less than a year left, work is being accelerated on Games venues and city infrastructure, but for construction workers it hasn’t meant boom times. Arvind Yadav / Hindustan Times

Besides generating jobs for a significant percentage of an estimated 800,000 construction workers—migrants settled in Delhi—the building binge could have been the perfect opportunity to register labourers, standardize wages and improve working conditions, activists say. That hasn’t happened.

Less than 10km away from Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium is Shivaji Stadium, another Games venue, where a worker from Assam peers through a gap in the tall barricades that surround the construction site. The guards positioned at the site gates don’t let construction workers leave without the permission of their subcontractor.

The worker, who didn’t want to be identified says he has assured work, but that it pays only Rs110 a day, well below both the minimum wage of Rs140, and the prevailing rate at the labour chowks. It’s also much below the rate proclaimed by a sign painted on one of the barricades that says “Contractor: China Railway Shisiju Group Corporation, labour per day: Rs145".

“The conditions are tough", the worker says. “We can be made to work at any time of day or night, there’s no overtime, and a hut made of a few tin sheets houses an entire family."

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The human factor

In anticipation of such a situation, Citizens for Workers, Women and Children (CWG-CWC), a coalition of 20 individuals and organizations, was created a little over two years ago.

The members came from diverse backgrounds, including trade unions, non-government organizations working with children, researchers and government officials. Their goal, as Devika Singh, one of the founder-members, puts it was to “look at the human factor in big construction".

Subhash Bhatnagar of Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam (NMPS), a trade union, has been at the forefront of the campaign. His small office in Rohini, far from the hubbub of central and south Delhi where most of the Commonwealth Games action is focused, is cluttered with hundreds of files.

According to Bhatnagar, there’s been an influx of nearly 150,000 migrants from across the country into New Delhi who have an advantage over locals when it comes to construction jobs—they can be paid less, made to work longer and are unlikely to protest or create trouble.

“Exactly the same thing happened during the Asian Games, the only difference is that today we have a detailed set of laws that looks after the welfare of construction workers." He’s referring to the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers Act (BOCW Act) that was passed way back in 1996.

The very comprehensive Act requires builders to register their workers and stipulates that any organization doing construction work involving more than Rs10 lakh should deposit between 1% and 2% of the total with the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board.

The Games, Bhatnagar believes, were Delhi’s best shot at implementing the provisions of the Act. The construction was concentrated at a manageable number of sites, and since most of the work was being done by government agencies, monitoring would have been easier.

Wasted opportunity

While the Act does not deal directly with wages, it would have allowed the government to keep track of the number of workers involved in every project, and, therefore, indirectly of the wages. The cost associated with providing “decent" living facilities, as required by the Act, could have deterred contractors from relying solely on immigrant labour.

But the welfare board has so far registered only 18,000 workers, says a member of the board who did not want to be named. Rules require that these registrations be renewed every three months. But most workers find it difficult to take time off to do that, with the result that most have lapsed.

The board has neither hired any dedicated staff nor does it have an office. It relies on organizations such as NMPS and Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) to register workers. It has so far processed two applications for pensions and distributed 10 scholarships.

Board members accuse the builders of not cooperating in the registration of workers. Builders are reluctant to part with information about their workers, says one member, since “they’re afraid that they will be held accountable for them or that they (workers) will be poached by other builders".

When asked about the number of registered workers at the Commonwealth Games village site, Emaar MGF Land Ltd said that the information was only available with Ahluwalia Contracts (India) Ltd, the main contractor on the site. Ahluwalia Contracts chief executive officer Arun Sahai, however, referred Mint back to Emaar MGF.

H.S. Pasricha of the Builders Association of India lobs the ball right back into the board’s court. The Builders Association, he says, has been trying to provide workers more facilities. It’s the lack of staff with the board that is the problem. By the time it processes a worker’s application, the worker has often been shifted to another site.

“Some builders ask us why they should register workers and pay their registration fee, when the worker is quite likely to shift to another contractor in a month’s time?"

No access

Access to the sites has also been a problem. Board members claim that while they’re responsible for the labourers on these sites, they don’t have access to them since the sites belong to Union government agencies such as the Sports Authority of India and Central public works department.

NGOs that have tried to access the workers at the Commonwealth Games sites have also had a difficult time.

“The sites are like fortresses," says Anjali Alexander of Mobile Creches, which runs a crèche for workers’ children at the Jawaharlal Nehru and Shivaji stadiums. “It has taken us three-four months just to get access to the sites, after which it takes a month to set up the crèche."

The end result is that there is still no real monitoring mechanism in place.

Meanwhile, the number of unemployed workers at Delhi’s 700 or so labour chowks is slowly increasing.

And, a study released by CWC in October says the immigrant workers at the Games sites continue to be exploited. “Most work for 9 hours or more; violation of workers’ rights to minimum wage is widespread; and less than 1% of them have heard of the welfare board."

“It’s an opportunity lost," says Alexander. If the Games venues are to be ready on time the bulk of the construction workers will have to be out by February 2010. “All we’ve really achieved is to bring some issues to the fore."

The Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee has adopted a hands-off approach to the labour issue. When asked, Sudhir Sobti, director of communications, said he was unaware of any effort by the commitee to monitor the condition of workers at the Games venues.