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Behind India's construction boom: 'We risk our lives to build your homes'

By Mutala Yakubu
Behind India's construction boom: 'We risk our lives to build your homes'
Behind India's construction boom: 'We risk our lives to build your homes'

It was an early morning in November when Mir Hasan arrived at a construction site in Noida - a suburb of India's capital Delhi - to start his daily shift.

He drank a bottle of water and began work right away - this was his routine every day.

But a few hours later, he fell from the high-rise building and died.

He should have had a harness, a good protective helmet, boots with a firm grip and an insurance policy against accidents. But he did not have any of these things, which construction firms are legally required to give workers.

However, many firms do not follow the rules in order to save money, and end up neglecting the wellbeing of the very people who form the backbone of their business.

Mir Hasan's death wasn't an isolated incident - more than five workers died in 2018 in Noida in a similar manner, and many more suffered injuries.


Ram Bhavan, who has worked at many construction sites in Noida, says most contractors and builders do not take the safety of workers seriously.

"Sometimes, we get helmets but they are mostly old and ill-fitting, and boots are not of good quality," he says. "Each worker is aware of the risks and we get scared when we hear about other workers' deaths. But we don't have an option - we have to keep working without safety equipment."

Ram left Delhi last year to work at construction sites in Allahabad city in northern India.

"The deaths of my colleagues scared me" he says. "I now work at smaller construction sites where working conditions are still risky but manageable."


The construction sector, which mostly relies on unorganised labour, is one of India's biggest job providers. India has seen a construction boom in recent years as incomes rise and cities expand.

But the industry mostly attracts migrant workers from villages who move to towns and cities due to a lack of jobs in their own areas.

For any labourer refusing to work without proper safety equipment, there will be 100 others willing to take the job. And so construction firms seldom fear losing their workforce, and hire and fire frequently.


P Sainath, the founder and editor of the journal People's Archive of Rural India, says an agrarian crisis has also contributed to the constant migration of labourers from villages to cities.

"Farming has become unsustainable because of the poor policies of governments. And that is why [the] agrarian workforce is rapidly moving to the construction sector," he says.

Atul Kumar is currently working on a construction project in Noida. He came to the city from a village in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh after farming became costly and unsustainable.
"I wasn't making enough money in farming. As a construction worker, I earn anything between 200 to 300 rupees (£3.50; $4.50) a day. Yes, construction work is risky but it feeds my family," he said.

I visited many construction sites in Noida and Allahabad, and spotted labourers working without proper safety equipment. And when we tried to speak to the managers at these sites, we were denied entry.
I met Rakesh Kumar (who did not want to use his real name) living in a temporary hut with his family near a construction site. His two children were playing outside with sand used for building.

The hut, which had a plastic sheet as a roof, had just enough room for four people to sleep.

"It gets terribly cold in the night and my children suffer so much," he said. "I can't even afford to send them to school. All this worries me but then arranging two meals a day for them becomes more important than educating them."

He added that contractors often abuse labourers when they ask for safety gear. "Sometimes we are beaten up as well."

Gayadin, 55, started working in the construction sector when he was 15 years old.

"My back now hurts after years of manual labour," he says. "But I don't have any other skills. I have resigned to the fate and have no hopes from any government. I am trying to save whatever little I can for a time when my body won't allow me to do manual work."
Gayadin can't ask for a higher wage because there is a lot of demand for these jobs.

Mr Sainath says this is one of the reasons that construction firms prefer to hire workers from faraway places.

"Migrant labourers come from different parts of the country and never pose the risk of forming a union to demand better wages or safety equipment," he says. "Locals on the other hand can easily form unions."

Migrant workers also lack resources to take any legal action or demand compensation after accidents.

"As long as firms continue to prefer migrant labourers, the influx will continue and nobody will bother about their safety," Ms Sainath says.

Death is not the only risk. Workers are also constantly exposed to dust from the construction site coupled with toxic levels of air pollution.

"I struggle to breathe and cough constantly," says 25-year-old Dilip Kumar, a construction worker who suffers from respiratory illnesses.

"But I don't pay attention to all this. I want to work hard, save up and then open a small shop in my village. I am not sure if my dream will come true but I will keep dreaming."
Women workers face different challenges.

Rina Kumari, who works in Allahabad, says builders don't hire women and whenever they do, they prefer younger women.

"They think women can't work as much as men, so most days I go without any work or settle for a lower daily wage," she says. "My husband left me, so I have to work for my children."
So what can be done to keep construction workers safe?

Rajat Sodhi, founder of architecture firm Orproject, says contractors need to invest in safety measures.

"In developed countries, most firms have a health safety department and an emergency health worker is always present at the site. But this costs money and most Indian contractors don't want to spend extra," he says.


He says that while the situation is slowly getting better, existing rules need to be properly implemented.

BN Singh, the district magistrate of Noida, acknowledges that some construction firms are not following proper health and safety norms.

He says part of the problem is a lack of awareness.

"Most migrant workers move from place to place and it becomes difficult for us to make them aware of government schemes," he says. "We are also trying to get firms and labourers to formally register with us because it ensures that they get proper compensation."


Khesari Lal, who has been a construction worker for 20 years, says he has heard about health benefits and other schemes, but doesn't know how to access them.

"We want the government to help us, but we also want people to change their attitudes towards us," he says.

"We are considered untouchables, people don't even talk to us nicely. Little do they know that we risk death every day to build their beautiful homes - the kind we can never dream of living in."

Source: bbc