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Delhi building workers need better nutrition amidst health-threatening conditions

By Bharat Dogra* 

With the onset of winter construction workers in Delhi begin to worry about the likely ban on construction work which has been imposed generally during the winter in recent years, related to efforts to reduce the level and adverse impact of pollution and smog. Although several workers feel that smaller-scale construction work does not really lead to so much dust and the dust level can be reduced further by efforts, their views are hardly ever considered by the decision takers and they have reconciled themselves with such decisions.
Keeping in view their low income and negligible savings, the impact of the earnings of construction workers stopping suddenly for weeks or even months should be considered carefully and sympathetically, and remedial actions based on such consideration should be taken either in the form of cash compensation or free grain, pulse and edible oil packets meant to last for the period of forced unemployment. Food banks should be opened in the colonies with a concentration of domestic workers.
However the winter season is a shorter one while the hot afternoons are getting hotter still for the greater part of the year in Delhi as well as in most other parts of India. Earlier May and June used to be the most worrying months from the point of view of the hot weather but now the worrying period starts earlier and ends later. One of the more worrying aspects of the situation relates to the impact of the increasingly hotter afternoons on open space workers like construction workers (and related lines of work like laying of pipelines).
Most construction workers in a city like Delhi are likely to be at a work-site that is far from their home, and so they cannot go home for an extended lunch and come back to complete the remaining work as evening approaches. So what is to be done? I discussed this question with several construction workers, men and women, in some places but the more intense discussion was with the women workers of Shahbad Dairy. These women workers were very involved with this debate, thinking and coming up with suggestions, then finding some flaw in their own suggestion and coming up with a new idea. This experience, as well other such experiences earlier, completely shatter the myth that working class people are not too concerned about issues like climate change. They certainly are, if you discuss such issues in terms of their needs and concerns.
Most of the women suggested that the lunch period should be extended beyond its present one hour during the hotter months, but there was debate regarding for how long this can extend. Some women workers felt extending it on very hot days by a short time will not bring the desired benefit, but others were apprehensive whether employers would agree to longer extension of lunch or rest period, and how long extra would they ask them to work in the evening. What would this imply in terms of returning home in time, or cooking dinner? They debated these questions among themselves, forgetting my presence, but there was unanimity that relief from working in very hot afternoons should be available when needed. They recounted stories of how some workers have already fainted in the past on hot afternoons, or felt very dizzy (chakkar aa gaya).
Similarly everyone agreed that shady protected place is needed for rest, and cold and clean water must be available. On these three points all workers I talked to expressed their agreement.
Secondly, there is the question of what workers return to in the evening. If the transport for the journey back home is uncomfortable and the houses and lanes they live in are hot, unhygienic and mosquito breeding spots, then it is likely that they will not get rest and relief from their hard work in hot conditions during daytime, leaving them vulnerable to illness and even collapse. So improvement in living conditions to provide for more rest in cooler conditions with plenty of clean and cool drinking water available is a must.
Similarly improvement of nutrition is very much needed to cope with more health-threatening conditions of times of climate change. This is possible only with increasing wages and improved provisions for food security.
Climate is already here, and it is clearly time for giving much more attention to reducing its adverse impacts on more vulnerable sections of society.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Man over Machine”, “When the Two Streams Met” and “A Day in 2071”

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