More than a month has passed after the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic was imposed, but construction workers in Gujarat continue to struggle without a source of income. Notably, on March 26, the Gujarat government had assured financial assistance of Rs 1000 to all construction workers. However, the amount still eludes the workers who have been surviving on voluntary help offered by various social organizations and NGOs so far.
“Gujarat has about 20 lakh construction workers including both migrants from others states, and locals. Among the locals, about 70% are tribal people from Central Gujarat – areas like Dahod and Panchamahal,” said Vipul Pandya, the Director of Bandhkam Mazdoor Sangathan, a Gujarat-based civil rights organisation working for construction workers.
Pandya told NewsClick that about 6.34 lakh workers from that number are registered with the Gujarat Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board. “However, though the government claims to have disbursing the amount, most especially tribal workers have complained they have not received the money,” he added.
Registered construction workers are entitled to benefits such as education assistance for their children, housing assistance and the like, under the Building and Other Construction Workers Cess Act, 1996, which entitles the state government to collect between one to two percent cess on construction projects that cost over Rs 10 lakh. The money collected under the Act is to be used for the welfare of construction workers as per the law.
The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, mandates for the creation of a board that is responsible for collecting the cess and is liable for welfare of the construction workers. Despite the law coming into force in 1996, the Gujarat Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board was formed in 2004 and the state began collecting cess in 2006.
However, after the board was dismantled in 2017, a new board was not set up and the Gujarat Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board remained limited to one member – B.M. Prajapati, an IAS officer and Member Secretary.
“The Gujarat government has been collecting cess as per the Act since 2006. The state has Rs 2,900 crore of unspent funds that are supposed to be used for the benefit of the construction workers. However, with no aid from the government and without a source of income, the workers are struggling to survive amid the lockdown,” added Pandya.
Shivkumar, a migrant worker at an under-construction mall in Ahmedabad said that his contractor had been paying them Rs 500 every week, “which we fear will be deducted as advance payment once work resumes. Usually we get paid Rs 320 per day while a mistri (skilled worker) gets between Rs 500 to Rs 600 a day. The money is not enough to sustain ourselves, besides, it getting hotter each day and living in the open is taking a toll,” he added.
“Initially, we were not told that work would be halted and that we would not be paid. Some of the local workers left for home after the contractor announced that there was a lockdown due to some disease and that work cannot continue. We did not have an option to go back home,” added Shivkumar, a resident of Uttar Pradesh, who has been living at the construction site with other workers.
“Even workers whose bank details are with the government have not received the money. Why is it taking so long?” questioned Pandya, who has written a letter to the Gujarat Chief Secretary and Labour Secretary, raising the issue.