Fast pace of industrialization in India has led to a sharp rise in employment opportunities in the construction industry. In fact, there is a constant demand of skilled and semi-skilled workers in this sector. It has become an important factor in providing employment in the urban economy. Currently, the construction sector employs an estimated 15 lakh workers in Gujarat. A large majority of them are semi-skilled or unskilled workers. Besides, they are mostly migrants from several of Gujarat’s tribal-dominated areas of Panchmanals, Dahod, Ucchal, Nizar, and Madhya Pradesh and a few other states. They come to urban areas of Gujarat in order to get jobs at big building construction sites and road development projects.
Most of the construction workers are involved in doing hazardous jobs. Failure to take precautionary steps on the part of project developers often leads to high incidence of deaths and fatal injuries to construction workers. Thanks to constant struggle launched by trade unions and other social organizations, Parliament in 1996 passed the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Workers) Act. In Gujarat, the rules for making the Act effective were prepared about a decade later.
Called Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Workers) Rules, they made the directorate of Gujarat Industrial Safety and Health responsible for implementing the law. As required by the law, the developers are required to deposit one per cent of the project cost to the welfare board as cess. The amount gathered has to be used for the safety and welfare of construction workers.
As of October 2012, the board had collected an amount of Rs 399.93 crore from the cess. The Gujarat Construction Workers’ Welfare Board’s report for the year 2013-14 said that 10,628 workers were registered with the board. And, out of the nearly Rs 400 crore collected for the welfare board, it spent just about Rs 2.56 crore. The main reason behind the failure to use the fund collected in the board is that, very few workers are registered with it. Despite the fact that there are 15 lakh construction workers in Gujarat, their compulsory and regular registration remains eludes them.
The actual implementation of the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Workers) Act, 1996 began in 2005-06. During the seven years it was under implementation thereafter, apart from the cess collected for workers’ welfare, a registration fees of Rs 18.98 crore was also collected till 2013-14. By the end of the end of the current financial year, 2014-15, the amount is likely to reach Rs 26 crore.
If one adds up the amount that will be collected for the welfare of construction workers, it is likely to reach a whopping Rs 1,073 crore by the end 2014-15. The main portion of the amount thus collected is the cess, apart from a small registration fees. It goes without saying that, already, Gujarat has collected a huge amount of money for the construction workers’ welfare. This amount should be readily available for the social welfare of workers.
There is no reason why the Gujarat government should fear that construction workers’ welfare would be a burden on the state coffers. In fact, the state government does not have to spend even a paisa on this. It should be borne in mind that the welfare board also receives a registration fees for registering construction workers.
It should be borne in mind that the construction workers’ working conditions are extremely hazardous. In 2013-14, as many as 256 fatal accidents involving construction workers had taken place, because of which 292 workers lost their lives. These are official figures, and it is quite possible that the real figures would be much higher. Construction workers often become permanently handicapped because of the hazardous nature of their work. The result is that, they are unable to earn livelihood following such accidents.
A majority of construction workers are either tribals or Dalits, or belong to the other backward classes. They are extremely poor. Hence, it is extremely important that the state government runs a campaign for compulsory registration of construction workers. Yet, very few workers are registered, and the reason for this is that, if they are registered, the developers fear they would be held responsible for the construction workers’ hazardous conditions of work and the resultant accidents.
The Gujarat government should liberalize the rules for ensuring the registration of construction workers. It should not be obligatory for workers to produce the proof of 90 days’ employment in order to get themselves registered with the welfare board. Social organizations working with these workers as also trade unions should be involved in the campaign for their registration. As most of them are migrant workers, village panchayats, too, could be involved. A draft is pending for quite a few years for making changes in the present requirement of proof of working for 90 days for registration, but it is no final decision has been taken in this regard.
A public interest litigation (PIL) is also pending in the Supreme Court since 2006 for ensuring proper implementation of laws related with the security and safety of construction workers. Only three states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pudicherry – are known to have properly utilized the funds collected as cess for the welfare of construction workers. As for other states, because of the failure to register construction workers, huge amounts are pending unutilized. The Supreme Court has directed the Government of India and state governments to ensure audit of welfare boards by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Currently, the situation is such that welfare boards have massive funds, but construction workers suffer.
*With Pathey Budget Centre, Ahmedabad