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Non-workers register, corner limited welfare funds meant for construction workers

By Bharat Dogra* 

When two path-breaking laws were passed in India in 1996 for construction workers, there was great hope among tens of millions of these workers for a range of benefits and welfare measures promised by these laws. Despite a delayed and hesitant start, these hopes got a boost more recently when the Supreme Court gave strong directions for the better implementation of these laws.
However, interviews with nearly 50 construction workers of Delhi recently revealed that they feel disappointed with the poor implementation of these laws resulting in denial of the promised welfare benefits to them.
These workers live in working class clusters of colonies like JJ colony Bawana, Haiderpur, Shahbad Dairy and Dwarka. They have carefully preserved documents relating to their applications submitted a long time back, only to get the response of an endless wait. ‘Apply, apply, no reply’ appears to be the situation here.
The situation was somewhat more hopeful a few years back when I had interviewed workers of these clusters earlier. Even though benefits had even then reached only a relatively small number of people, there was a sense of hope that now that these benefits have started coming in, the number of beneficiaries will soon increase. This hope is now receding rapidly, as the implementation has become poorer instead of improving.
These benefits include old-age pension, scholarships for the children of workers, grant at the time of marriage and child-birth in family, compensation for accident, help to family following death of a worker etc.
A pension of Rs 4,000 a month available under this law can give significant support to construction workers, particularly if received by both husband and wife, and the few who receive this readily agree that this has made life much easier for them in their old age. The trouble is those not getting this and made to wait endlessly for the processing of their papers are much more numerous.
When Jagdish Prasad neared the age of 60, he filed his pension papers, but three years later there has been no response yet. Then there are others like Ganpat and Rajkumar who were getting pension earlier but did not get during the last one or two months. Only about 6% of those eligible for this pension are said to be getting this, and even this may be an overestimate.
The condition of widows like Seeta Devi and Chanda Devi is particularly pathetic as they can’t find the minimum means for bringing up children while the claims filed by them keep getting delayed. In their case even the widow pension they received under a different scheme has stopped arbitrarily. 
“There is no one to care for the poor”, says Chanda Devi. Another distressing case is that of accident victims like Bhagwati, who was badly injured but did not get any compensation or relief, either under normal process or under the special construction workers’ law.
The documents relating to marriage-time help appear very colourful due to attaching the mandatory wedding card and photograph, but in the overwhelming majority of cases have not yet resulted in bringing in the promised help months or even years after the wedding and the claim being filed.
Only 6% of those eligible for pension are said to be getting it, and even this may be an overestimate
Scholarships for education of children are a much valued part of the various provisions under these laws and their importance has increased in recent times as education of children is threatened due to economic difficulties. But instead of increasing, the access to such scholarships too has been decreasing, workers say.
This is despite the fact that many of these claims are being pursued in a systemic way by sincere labour activists. As Bibiyani, one such activist involved in helping workers to file such claims says, “Workers have filed these with a lot of hope and we make the best possible effort in the middle of several constraints to take them forward, also obtaining legal help for this, but despite this the results have been very discouraging.”
Although the government presents its estimates to show at least some progress, the reality is different as a large number of non-workers have been registered and often corner the limited funds released. This may be one reason why even the modest progress shown by government records is not reflected in ground-level reality. 
One activist says about her visits to government offices for claim processing, “They make us wait for a long time, keep having tea or lunch, then use some pretext or the other to ask us to come some other time. I say stop this hypocrisy and delay tactics. Tell us clearly what your intention is.”
This is exactly what many deeply hurt and long waiting workers will like to say to the concerned government authorities. The gradual erosion of their hopes being seen now is not just deeply distressing but in addition this is also a glaring violation of the clear directives given by the Supreme Court for the improved implementation of the various welfare measures under construction workers’ laws.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Man over Machine', ‘A Day in 2071’ and ‘Planet in Peril'

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