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Gujarat construction workers walk home as Rs 2,900 crore welfare fund lies unused

Migrants passing through Gujarat capital Gandhinagar. Photo: Kevin Antao
By Our Representative
Situated behind the Gujarat University, some of the families of the migrant construction workers from Dahod and Panchmahals districts of Gujarat, and a few from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, who had stayed put in make-shift shanties in Ahmedabad’s sprawling GMDC Ground, have begun a long journey, by foot, back to their home villages in the eastern tribal belt of Gujarat.
Just about three kilometres way, a few families living in a Rain Basera, set up by the government for overnight stay for migrant workers, were found waiting to get government transport to return to their home village in Dahod district. Talking to a senior activist, Vipul Pandya of the Bandhkam Majur Sangathan (BMS), who had visited them, they wondered, if the government arranges to bring back Indians from abroad, why it couldn’t do the same for them.
Pandya said, as he was talking to them, one of them, Rajubhai, got a phone call from someone who said five of the families couldn’t make their two ends meet in these difficult times in Ahmedabad, hence they had begun their journey back to home by foot, hoping to get transport in between. “On hearing this, three workers, accompanied by their families, immediately decided to do the same”, Pandya said.
“I reached out to a senior official, in charge of industrial safety and health, telling him about the need to provide transportation of these workers after screening them of coronavirus. I told him, this was necessary in order to ensure that the tribal villages do not get contracted with the dangerous pandemic, which was currently confined to a few major cities”, he said.
Suspecting that none seemed to listen, in an email alert to Counterview, Pandya said, he has written a letter to Gujarat chief secretary Anil Mukim, insisting on the urgent need to look into the plight of the migrant construction workers, all of them daily wagers, who had been thrown out of job following the countrywide shutdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the wake of the pandemic.
The letter said, as the businesses had shutdown, the situation of about 85% of the total working population in the state, about 20 million, “is extremely serious.” Most of them are self-employed workers, farm labourers, construction workers, porters, housekeepers, sanitary workers, auto-rickshaw drivers, courier delivery workers, there is nobody to fend the, the letter added.
All beneficiary workers enrolled with the board should be paid 50% of the existing minimum wages directly into their account
Citing the International Labor Organization (ILO), which has warned that unemployment around the world would sharply rise due to the coronavirus pandemic, the letter said, in the wake of long-term lockdown and imposition of curfew, the economic condition of the daily wagers would worsen. While many countries around the world have declared economic relief packages, and a few states, among them Kerala UP, Jharkhand, Punjab and Delhi had taken similar steps, the state government’s response is “insufficient”.
Street vendors in Gandhinagar. Photo: Kevin Antao
Especially taking exception to two Labour and Employment Department circular, issued last week, which state that the workers who have been rendered jobless “may be paid wages”, and it is the “moral responsibility” of the employers to assist these workers in times of crisis, the letter said, such pleas have little legal backing, as whether or not to accept a request “depends on personal convenience” of the employers, who no obligation to pay minimum wage set by the law when workers are not in job.
Asking the government to take all the responsibility, Pandya said, of the 15 lakh construction workers in Gujarat, 6.5 lakh are enrolled with the state agency, Gujarat Housing and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board. The Board has an unused fund of Rs 2,900 crore, collected as cess from the construction industry for the welfare of the workers employed by it.
“All beneficiary workers enrolled with the board should be paid 50% of the existing minimum wages directly into their account”, Pandya said, giving the example of the Punjab government, which has announced to deposit of Rs 3,000 in the bank account of each construction worker who is registered with the the Punjab’s construction workers’ board.
Listing other demands, Pandya said, construction workers should be provided with subsidized food at Rs 10 at the spots, called Kadia Nakas, where they gather to be picked up by those wanting to employ them; handed over masks and sanitizers free of cost; and the scheme of Rs 3 lakh in the event of death while on work should be extended to coronavirus fatalities.

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