Acouple hundred meters away from the bhaji market, adjacent to the Lower Parel station, are several towering complexes under construction which will jewel the area’s narrow streets. These to-be glossy seventy-to-hundred floored buildings, some of the tallest in India, will serve as retail spaces and luxury residences. The locality, with the usual congestion and hustle around puddled streets, is punctuated by large labels of construction companies, a temple and a mini-sex market.
In light of the work, this area has seen an influx of migrant workers from all over the country. Young men, aged around nineteen, will look to make it their home for the next four to five years.
A study conducted nine years ago claims that nearly 80 percent of the Indian population lives on less than ₹ 20 a day. Perhaps, to creep out of this valley, folk from these economically backward communities look towards globalised modern centers. The companies in their hunt for cheap labour look towards the rural landscapes. And so does IIT.
Mahendra Namdev Adhe says he manages over eighty hours of work every week. He doesn’t seem to be proud of it. He seems tired and is possibly slightly inebriated. He has been reporting to work at eight in the morning after getting up before daybreak every day, weekends included. He manages to get back to the room well after dusk at nine in the night. Supported by worn-out steel sheets, his make-shift home is a dingy little shack lit by a sole incandescent bulb dangling midway in this cuboidal space. The monotone orange hue paints everything - the fireplace to cook, the stacked steel utensils, the hanging clothes on the rope which makes its way underneath the small three winged fan. There’s very little furniture. Only a shelf to support miscellaneous items - papers, a worn-out safety helmet, a small mirror and three unlit incense sticks in front of the pictures of two Hindu gods. His wife is usually back from work before him. She managed to get work in one of the girls’ hostel messes, which provides at least one stable source of money for the family. There’s a mat spread on the floor with a couple of sheets on it to help them through the windy nights. He needs to sleep now and it’s time for dinner. At most, she cooks twice a day, sometimes making do with possibly un-refrigerated leftovers, once for lunch in the morning, and once again in the evening. It’s time for chicken curry now. All eyes are watery as the smoke from the wood-chullah fills the little room, as the fire is fuelled by bits of plastic trash and wood-blocks. She cooks on the ground in the same room, right next to a wet little square-corner, where the ingredients and dishes are washed. The water is drained out of the house through a used-plastic pipe which lets it out only a few meters outside, neatly snuggling in a nice little puddle, in the middle of the open space between the neighbouring houses.
“It isn’t easy,” he starts with a mellow voice, “we’ve been living on paycheck to paycheck for a while now. I haven’t even received two lakhs for all the work I did for Hostel-15. Our son will move to high school later.”
His son, Sonu, lives with them and is laying along with his cousin on the cot right outside the shed, passing time while gazing at Mumbai’s largely starless night sky while surrounded by the slight background hum of myriad radio songs and noisy regional TV soap operas from the households nearby, some in Telugu, some in Bengali. He studies in the Tirandaz Village Municipal School, right across the main-gate and is schooled in Marathi. He wasn’t too keen on talking about school as he wandered off in his own mind during the awkward silences.
His parents want him to get educated, but the only thing they know about education is that it is the only thing which could secure their son a future different from theirs. Perhaps less tiring. Perhaps less stressful. Perhaps a place which is more respectful.
He heads into the room, switching on the 21’’ TV they just bought off the tele-adverts.
“He is so intelligent!” Mahendra adds, “He knows which channels come where, and he navigates all of it very quickly!” as Sonu settles on a loud cheesy Imran Khan movie. One can’t quite think of a less conducive study environment in this space: with no peer groups, no educated mentors, no shared enthusiasm for knowledge.
Mahendra’s brother also works in the construction industry. Infact, both of them lived together inside IIT before he decided to leave the institute to find better work; he too claims that he wasn’t paid on time. Mahendra points to all the receipts and files, saying that it’s been almost a year since he finished his job without the money.
Next month is what they say.
That is all they always say.
Mahendra is a sub-contractor and works in Hostel-1. He is supposed to get work-orders from the company and hires labour, while also working. He just hired Mahammad Ali, who is from Kolkata. Even for the work in Hostel-1, which is run by Classicon Construction Private Ltd, he adds that they haven’t been paying their share of money regularly. He hasn’t even received the official work-orders from the company yet. In fact, as such, there is no proof he is working with them. But he works on, one-and-a-half shifts everyday, for lack of options, in the hope that the promised money is shelled out at the proper time.
Ali also lives in the same site, only a few rooms across, with fellow Bengali bachelors, where he first met Mahendra. Five to six fit men covered in half-white, soiled banyans who huddled across Central India, adjust in a space twice the size of a Hostel-2 room. He is a lean, young looking chap with a constant smile on his face. Not usual for someone working a thousand miles away from home without any guarantee of money. He hasn’t been working for the past twenty-two days as he hasn’t received money for the work he completed three months ago -- there is no reason to. Not working is the only form of protest he can imagine.
He started out in the industry when he was thirteen, studying upto the tenth grade while working, before dropping out to support his family in the rural landscapes of West Bengal. Without higher education, the most logical thing would be to add money to the household by working. The easiest way to do this, he says, is by working in a construction site.
Almost all my friends are in this business!
We are scattered all over the country!
His family, like many others’ who work in the construction business, is supported by the uncertain revenue from agricultural activities which are usually meagre and largely depend on the season and the whims of their farmland landlords. Although it’s just been three months since he came, he does seem to have socialized with this tiny multi-cultural community. His speech is regularly interrupted by his refreshing small talk with all members of this unlikely coterie as he jollies around along the uneven terrain in congested spaces amidst the bare-minimum houses, after grabbing his supper - a samosa from the canteen. “I am keeping my expenses low!” he laughs.
Not working is the only form of protest he can imagine.
“At least the work finished should be acknowledged. We should be paid for it. We travel all over the country to send back savings only to support our family. No one likes to do such stuff. We do it because someone has to and we have to fill in that void,” he adds, still with a wide smile, although his eyes show that it does seem hurting now.
He is younger than the average undergraduate and has been to several urban centres, helping out in their infrastructural growth - Bangalore, Kochi, Chennai, Delhi.
“Oh! I’ve been to Hyderabad as well,” he boasts. “At most other places we were paid on a weekly basis, and that time scale seemed nice. But here the deadlines are always pushed, and false assurances make us work more. How long without work do I wait? I am supposed to get the money from my Seth (Mahendra), but if he himself hasn’t been getting money from the supervisor, what do we do?”
He hasn’t received money for work completed amounting to ₹ 20,000, and on asking what he’d do if he doesn’t get it, he says,
और क्या करेंगे?
कोई train पकड़ेंगे,
और घर चले जाएँगे |
IIT hires companies to complete construction projects on a contractual basis. The company with their builders and supervisors hire local representatives, who, through their contacts, reach out to tiny villages and districts all across India in search of labour. Unsurprisingly, this fraction of people is largely uneducated and, most importantly for the construction companies, very cheap. The lowest rung of workers neither sign any agreement, nor get paid by documented paperwork. They carry around a small coloured card where an official puts a check on their work. At times, there is no proof which can be used to take any sort of remedial legal action. Most on-ground workers are picked up by trusting their local Seths. In this sector, the actual employers are hidden at the end of a long complicated chain of the subcontracting of construction work and the recruitment of workers.
Being the principal employer, IIT makes payments depending on the contract, based on Central Public Works Department (CPWD) works manual norms. It also keeps a check on the quality of the materials and the output by hiring Project Management Consultants (PMCs), but not on the workers who are involved in the very act of construction. It is the legal obligation of the company hiring the worker to provide them with the basic facilities, like the minimum government wage and social security schemes. The contractor who hires the labour is responsible to comply with the acts like the Inter State Migrant Workmen (Regulation and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979; the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970; the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976; Employees Provident Funds and Misc. Provisions Act, 1952; and the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996.
Although the work and the management of labour is outsourced to the contractor, the principal employer is responsible to oversee basic functions, such as ensuring the presence of a representative during disbursal of payment to the contract labour.
IIT, directly, only issues all the workers living inside campuses with gate passes to allow them to travel, while residing inside the campus. There are also OSDs, officers on special duty, hired by IIT, who oversee the entire process of a construction project. Apart from all this, construction workers can also be hired for maintenance work for civil and interior work instead of working on projects. IIT can also hire manpower directly, for labour-work, which falls under the purview of the Estate office, wherein a more direct relationship with the workers needs to be maintained.
Mahendra can barely read English or Arabic numerals. For his previous contract, the one where he helped build the current freshmen hostel, he shows all the paperwork he received from Unity co, the company which hired him as the subcontractor, to point towards the lakhs he claims he still needs to get. He was responsible for handling, constructing and finishing a part of the messing facility in Hostel-15 and 16. Furthermore, he himself can’t make complete sense of the work-order provided by the company that he signed to get the job. It’s a rather thick booklet detailing the legal obligations underlying the contract. It dictates a lot of do’s and dont’s and responsibilities on the signatory - specifying very detailed professional rules on how to conduct oneself at the workplace and how to go about dismantling the shed once the work is completed, all of which he doesn’t understand. But he keeps pointing towards the two numbers on his receipt - the deductions that were never returned.
all these deductions
they do as per their wish,
but do not return it when it is time.
It’s been over a year now.
To make it to Mahendra’s little abode, one has to take a narrow left turn while heading towards hillside from the Aravalli residences, towards the Sameer hill. The pathway is adjacent to the campus boundary and one can make out the Phulenagar settlements right behind the partition. The wild-grass is littered with glossy plastic trash and the area is not very pleasant to the nose. To one side at the end of the road, lies a small set of sheds. Around hundred people who are hired for labour live here. Across the road are two small taps to provide water for all needs - drinking, bathing, utilities and sanitation. The sheds are on uneven grounds, with filmed puddles and leaking pipes strewn about. It is not unusual to spot piles of unburnt garbage, and in each pile, one can sometimes easily make out desi glass liquor bottles. Here, one might as well be greeted by the campus wildlife, the growls of dogs or the occasional rustles as rats fearlessly make way through the small turns with their little hide-outs scattered all over. To one end of this haphazard settlement, seemingly disconnected from the campus, among the metal-walled huts are the toilets; “Women” and “Men” labelled on them, water for which needs to be accessed from taps elsewhere. Visibly, they seem to be in a potentially unhygienic state.
आप तो देखने के लिए आए होंगे ना?
की ग़रीब लोग कैसे जीते हैं, कैसे रहते हैं |
क्या खाते हैं, क्या पीते हैं,
यह सब | कुछ assignment के लिए हैं ना?
बाद में देते होंगे कुछ marks इसके लिए भी शायद,
अगर आप इतने-इतने लोगों के साथ बात करोगे तो |
Apart from one hour provided for lunch time, there is no electricity supply from seven in the morning to six in the evening. There is no luxury to not work when one doesn’t feel like working. Every worker is tagged along with chunks of tasks to finish; be it plastering walls, laying bricks, levelling, or plumbing. It will clearly show if they fail to finish. And if they fail to finish, there is little reason for the employer to not replace the worker. There is a lot of supply for construction labor. Think about the volume of all the less-educated youth all across the country. They are supposed to work - why would anyone need power during that time. Workers must make sure that they share a good rapport with the higher officials. Networking plays a huge role to get placed in jobs more easily. Maintaining good relations with the supervisor would imply a higher probability of being hired in the next construction project he/she is associated with. And more importantly, it would mean that there is a lesser chance of the supervisor not paying the wages, and a higher chance of sorting out any redressals.
From a higher-vantage point, the worker diminishes to a cog in the machine, more often than not, carrying out tasks that are associated with little cognitive developmental value, disciplining themselves to perform continuous and repetitive movements throughout the day. But all that discipline is necessary. Their lives demand a constant, systematic physical effort to make. To make value in terms of spaces. Spaces meant for growth and innovation.
There is an unassuming left turn one can take opposite the basketball court of Hostel-6, while walking towards Hostels-12, 13 and 14 to reach another construction camp site. From the safe confines of the elite student-life, a brief two hundred meter walk transports a person right into the alien livelihood of people at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. There are no street-lights in this stretch. At night, from the orange-yellow glow of the well-lit roads, into sparsely lit incandescent and CFL lighting, through darkness, one can walk through the silent abyss of privilege. Here, the night-scape is dipped in the night-lights and sounds of the towering hostels looking down upon them from behind.
The Golani camp site has been around for more than 10 years, with the company - Golani Brothers Construction Pvt Ltd - having been involved in many construction projects - from the Convocation Hall to the Gymkhana. In here, there are some families who have witnessed this transformation of the campus as they built parts of the recent infrastructural boom. Some of these families like it inside the campus because of the stable source of income. This site is clearly better maintained than the other two, with more structure to the arrangement of the houses and an even terrain. Apart from the labourers to one end, it also houses a few permanent staff - security, assistants and other skilled workers.
“So far, there haven’t been any serious incidents inside.” says Tripathi, who guards this camp site. (Although, a worker suicide from the site was reported a few weeks later.)
On the drinking culture among workers, he adds,
“A few drink almost everyday. Especially after they receive their wages. They have to. They’re labourers. They work all day and probably think that a drink or two would help their tired bodies. But people usually do know how much alcohol they can handle. It’s just to take their mind off for the night.”
A great majority of construction workers report having no access to social security benefits even though several government schemes are in place that could benefit them.
Most work all day long and head back to these invisible pockets, merging into the campus’s landscape. Hailing from remote and largely uneducated backgrounds, very few workers are fully aware of all aspects of the work, and what their legal entitlements are. Most come without any documentation of their identity. This lack of education and awareness trickles down into the communities’ ever-hopeful yet monotonous atmosphere.
Kumar hesitatingly takes a seat, placing his towel and soap aside, after adjusting the blue sheets on the roof to take care of the rain.
“We Bengalis take a bath after work. Unlike the Biharis, who do it in the morning. I don’t know how they do it. After work, you’re so tired, taking a bath just helps you sleep so nicely. You’re not sweaty and greasy anymore. You just can’t wash your hands and legs and go to sleep, you know. At least it helps to eat the same old fish curry for the hundredth time. The other day someone sold us a really weird looking fish which was just caught. It tasted terrible. Take some advice: Trust me, don’t pay someone ₹ 200, if you don’t know what you’re paying for.”
He came to Mumbai about sixteen to seventeen years ago and has been in the construction business for about eight years. He works in the Common CESE/DESE building which is opposite the K.V School. It is designed to provide working and research space for both the environmental sciences and the energy science department, along with common administrative workspace for the institute. He currently works under the same contractor who built the gymkhana sporting facilities and has been inside the campus for about a year. Six years ago, while living in Lower Parel, he came to work on the badminton court beside the Student Activity Center. He was here only for fifteen days to add finishing touches to the stadium. Labourers from the worker-pool are splashed around from one place to another as dictated by corporate demand. His daily routine necessitates him to get up at five in the morning every day, to finish up cooking for the first half of the day in an hour or two. And at around eight o’clock, a truck loads all workers and transports them across a kilometre through the campus, before dropping them off at the construction site.
In IIT, we get paid for how much ever we work. Our Seth is good, and that is why we came here taking work under him. We haven’t lost a single rupee in here. But I think if you take work under the wrong people, money is bound to get lost. For one of the projects outside the campus, I never received money.
The workers are usually paid on the tenth of every month. The contractors withhold one-third of their previous month’s earnings and return it on the following payday. Apart from such cash transactions, the workers don’t get anything else. On being quizzed about social security, he adds that he has little idea about it and assumed that all such provisions are entitled to the permanent worker, acknowledging the transience of his job. He has been moving from one project to another every eight months or so, and accepts that to be the norm of such a life.
A recent circular has mandated that employers and contractors ought to provide construction workers with social security benefits, like provident fund and insurance schemes. A great majority of construction workers report having no access to social security benefits even though several government schemes are in place that could benefit them.
The Employees’ Provident Fund Organization issued a circular on October 15, 2015, reiterating that construction workers fall under the ambit of the EPF Act. Meaning, that the workers are entitled to provident fund and social insurance benefits. Furthermore, it is also states the role of the principal employer in implementing such schemes.
The circular states the following:
“Principal employers be made liable to ensure compliance in respect of construction deployed by them through contractors.”
Construction is always an ongoing process - to build buildings to only renovate them later on, to demolish, design, to create new structures. With new specialisations, increased population, and increased demand, the institute has witnessed a marked shift. The last few years have seen a significant change in the campus landscape, thanks to the new academic buildings, accommodation facilities, and sporting complexes.
The fifty-five year old campus, which spans about 540 acres, including the area beyond the pipeline, will witness change as construction activities keep going on in the institute. Currently some major on-going projects include the new institute guesthouse (contractor: Kalpana Structcon), IITB-Monash academy (contractor: Golani brothers), the housing near hill-side - Type H1 Housing and apartments for married students, the proposed National Centre for Mathematics, the currently ongoing Hostel retro-fittings (contractor: Classicon), and the Common/CESE/DESE building (contractor: Golani brothers) opposite the Kendriya Vidyalaya.
Prof. B.V.S Viswanadham, the Dean Infrastructure, Planning and Support (IPS) talked about the shifting campus landscape in the coming years. “About Rs. 900 crores worth of construction is already planned. Which will be executed as per demand and the availability of monetary resources. The campus is growing widely. The requirement of academic and residential infrastructure which includes the needs of faculty and staff and students is increasing. One possible way to approach this would be to vertically expand existing structures. If there is no liberty of demolishing existing footprints, then a footprint will be created with a vertical expansion. If there are buildings beyond repair, new ones need to be put up which can last for over fifty years.”
The Dean also belabors the point that the expansion of campus from 3000 to 10,500 students has put considerable pressure on housing options. Rooms need to be created for 2,500 students and to tackle that at the earliest, Hostel 18 is being proposed in a vacant area behind Tansa house, which used to be a construction camp-site.
Academic departments might also witness change in the future, with relocations and repair of old departments and constructions of new ones in the plans. In contrast to an average construction which can take about two years, repair and reconstruction can take about three years. The newly planned research park, funded by the MHRD, will be built on the other side of the pipeline - where there is on-going issue with respect to resettling the current occupants, who might be native peoples: Adivasis. There are also plans to initiate construction of laboratories towards the Vihar lake.
Afew lights are still on in the upcoming guesthouse, as the street lamps light the narrow road sandwiched by Powai lake and the construction site. The stacked houses at the foot of this thirteen-storey building, where the workers live, are ever-soaked in the music of noisy machines. For a large part of the day, the constant shrill coming from the unison of the jack-hammers, the drills, the rollers, play out as the soundtrack of their lives. This high-rise building, being built by Kalpana StructCon, has rooms with balconies facing the lake, offering a scenic view of the campus landscape, and will try and address the crunch in hosting facilities in the institute. The site is much smaller than it used to be as the work comes to a close. The general shape of the building is clearly visible, only the finishing touches remain. And the people in these remaining houses are here to take care of it. Currently, there are only are two families in this site. Everyone else are either unmarried youth aged below twenty-five or middle-aged or elderly folk who have left their families back home.
As night falls, workers who can’t afford kerosene gas tanks, start lighting fire-wood - which is just scrap wood obtained from the construction site. There is a small canteen by the entrance to the work-site, to provide small light snacks; mainly chai - with two small benches outside facilitating dialogue. A few workers lie silent on the benches glued to their Chinese smartphones, with loud-music videos of the Bachchans and the Khans flashing on their screens, while Salinder, 24, from Uttar Pradesh, lies calm in his single-room abode gently doodling on a notebook.
“Someone stole my mobile,” he says, as he points towards the locks on the door. “I locked it from the inside and slept. Got up in the morning and it was nowhere to be found. Well, to be honest, one can quite easily open the door from the outside.” It isn’t common for someone to steal belongings inside the institute. Most workers cite that the advantage for working inside a campus like ours is the extra security it provides. Families prefer all of that security. Workers need to use the gate-pass to move in and out of the campus - mainly to go to the market to purchase their daily supply of consumables.
Salinder wants to complete his masters in math. He had to quit working to provide the money for his sister's marriage and dowry. He found his way into an elite educational institute, but not for the reason he’d wish for.
“Well, I still have six hours every day for myself. And I have been using that to think things through.”
He says this after removing the eight hours each, for work and sleep, and a couple hours for necessities. He doesn’t talk to many about this, as he feels that he does not find a shared enthusiasm for learning new things or meeting interesting people. Most others, according to him, just want to pass time by having ‘fun’.
“If you find me with others, I am not someone who wants to figure things out and six hours is a long time.”
During construction of a building, many activities run in parallel as different groups of people are set out to finish specified tasks. The work at this site started about two years ago. Many families have already vacated the sheds.
Back in 2015, Laxmi Devi and Veer Singh with their two children, in search of work and a living, agreed to work on the new IIT-B guesthouse, which cleared up a significant portion of green-space. They hail from Jharkhand and shuttled through different towns across the country.
As they were living through the days in this small temporary construction site, Laxmi felt a sharp discomfort in her hand. Perhaps through a lack of awareness, perhaps through rationalization, she convinced herself to push past the uneasiness, as the infection within grew to the extent of extreme pain. The magnitude of income received by these workers denies them the luxury of any satisfactory treatment. The IIT-B hospital does not cater to workers and is meant for registered staff and students. Without proper identification or proof like most other workers, she wouldn’t get the required treatment at government hospitals. Coupled with the fact that the family was rather isolated from the community at hand, she found no help. The shed and surroundings don’t provide for a very clean environment to house such wounds. The rains along with the breeding grounds scattered across the site, add to the problems of improper sanitation and hygiene.
What does one do, with searing pain in the hand which is taking a form one does not desire, resulting from an infection one doesn’t understand, without any known source of help or hope?
Laxmi did the unthinkable,
amputating her own hand.
Construction isn’t a safe job. The very profession involves dealing with heavy machinery, sometimes using high-voltage wires, and physical exertion throughout the day, sometimes at heights. Workers are supposed to be trained and provided with the required gear to carry-out the construction. Contractors are also obliged to maintain first-aid facilities and treatment compensations in case of on-site injuries. Without proper identification and documentation and thus, without access to government hospitals and health schemes, workers are forced to join private hospitals, which are not affordable. There were cases in which treatment of workers and their family members had been put on hold because of the lack of financial resources.
X-Ray scans to ascertain illness in the leg-joints, surgeries to check neurological disorders and checks to treat the disabled are some of the diagnostic and treatment interventions which are needed for some of the children in these communities.
As the construction sites fall inside the campus, the public health office (PHO) is responsible for garbage collection and fogging the sites. Even though this activity does take place, there are instances where garbage collection is dialled down to burning heaps within the sites, including glass bottles and plastics.
“The Act provides for regulating the employment and conditions of service of building and other construction workers and also provides for their safety, health and welfare measures and other matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
Apart from the basics of providing worker wages, social security and medical compensations, the employers are obliged to comply with a host of welfare measures such as providing the community with a canteen and a creche, which is a day-care facility to take care of the children of the workers. There are also guidelines with respect to maximum working hours and the provision of a paid leave every week.
From all worker conversations, even when they seem to be content with their quality of life inside the campus, a lack of strict implementation of some of these provisions can be noted.
Science and Math were too much for me. Too much effort and utter unrelatability, when one can start earning directly.
Oninddo is twenty-four and is married with two children who are back in his hometown. Like most others, he has been working since he was twelve.
“Science and Math were too much for me. Too much effort and utter unrelatability, when one can start earning directly. Apart from the basic accounting, there wasn’t much that one needed to learn. There’s just so much construction work these days, someone always has something to build, the builder picks up Sethjis who then pick up labour from folks like us.”
He was hired to complete the retrofitting of Hostel-1. He has been here since November, working in Hostel-1 with about twenty-three others from West Bengal leaving his family back home. The entire troupe was hired by a single Seth. These twenty three people group in two small rooms in the sheds, taking turns to cook in large amounts at once. It is not much that one saves after taking into account the daily consumables.
As he shivers after an early morning chilled bath, the one he takes every day as a morning ritual alongside the taps in the open spaces, before a quick samosa and chai, he adds as to how they too, like Ali and Mahendra, haven’t been paid enough.
“We were told that we’d get 300 per day. But then, they eventually told us that we would receive the income on a weekly...then on a monthly basis. They tried to fend us off by shelling out a thousand whenever we asked them, but almost all of us have five-digit numbered amounts that are yet to be paid to us. It’s only been about three months and this is the situation, we can’t continue working. There is no point working. We’ve waited too long. We will complain.” he said, while asking for directions to approach the main building.
The builders/supervisors register and sign for the work workers finish on a daily basis, and indeed one can go through these records to cross-check the work completed. But there is no reference to the payment or a receipt. There ought to be a check on the laws relating minimum wages. Minimum wages for construction workers in Maharashtra is greater than Rs. 360.
If Onnindo’s claims go through, there are at least two basic issues.
that they were being paid a below minimum daily wage.
even that amount wasn’t provided to them on a regular basis.
In a rather unsuspecting and candid conversation with the supervisors and officers who regulate work at the Classicon company, they admit that it is very often that money goes unaccounted for in the construction business. While stating that the bills by IIT are paid for, they admit that money always does not trickle down as it should, in theory. Without much emotion, and rather nonchalantly, they go on elaborating about the status-quo, and in some way meaning to make one understand that, this is, perhaps the way it ought to be.
“Such stuff always happens in this line of work. For instance, the Unity company, which built the freshmen hostels is already sunk. Where will they possibly give the money from now? If the company does well, then there is a chance of getting the wages.”
Apart from well-to-do companies, such problems almost always exist. They also talk about the pressures of keeping to the timeline. While elaborating about the issues they have to deal with in the business, they also admit that wages are delayed sometimes to keep a check on the worker.
“We commit to a specific timeline, when we take up a job. The workers, who are usually paid on a weekly basis, are not guaranteed to finish the work. We need to make sure that, in the end, there is the finished construction in front of us. So sometimes, to keep them in check, the money is delayed. We can’t let them go whenever they want to. We use this as a handle sometimes.”
This freedom, power and choice that officials exercise, seems to be a central root of the problem. If there is scope for using one’s own discretion on such grounds, who is to say that there will not be discrimination against workers on a variety of grounds, be it, gender, caste, etc? The mere possibility dilutes credibility, not only about the money not being accounted for, but also of the professional treatment of the workers. Disobeying norms and standards, and exercising convenient, self-declared measures for possible personal benefits, or for the sole purpose of the completion of the work, supervisors and people in-charge can assume a figure of authority which can vastly change the winds in the often shivery lives of the workers.
So sometimes, to keep them in check, the money is delayed. We can’t let them go whenever they want to. We use this as a handle sometimes.
IIT Bombay has no explicit policy towards ensuring a healthy and professional environment for the workers. IIT Gandhinagar, however, has put together an appreciated Community Outreach Policy . This was later recognized by the Standing Committee of the IIT Council, and the body encouraged other IITs to follow the same. This policy states the following:
“Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar believes in being an involved member of the community and a good neighbour. It believes in engaging with the community of which it is a part. Our presence should have a positive impact not only on those who are formally part of the Institute (its students, staff, and faculty), but also on those who surround us, and whose lives are affected by the presence of the Institute in one way or the other. As educators, we will like to pursue means to bridge the knowledge and communication gaps that exist between the privileged and the underprivileged. It is a high priority for IITGN to sensitize its students about the importance of community engagement, and to encourage them to see the world from the eyes of those who are far less privileged. The Institute will like its students to be aware of the fundamental and structural problems facing our country and the communities that lie within it, so that they could become a part of the solution to such problems. IITGN will constantly look for ways to be engaged with and contribute to the local community. It will do this through formal and informal initiatives, outreach activities, and educational engagement. The Institute will support and raise funds for voluntary activities, driven primarily by students, staff, and faculty, which foster social responsibility, and social sensitivity.”
— Adopted at the 4th Meeting of the IITGN Board of Governors, Sept. 3, 2011
Infact, the Standing Committee of the IIT Council (SCIC) has recommended all IITs to take steps towards more humane and ethical practices.
At its 47th Meeting on Sept. 16, 2013, the IIT Council recommended the adoption of IITGN’s labor welfare practices by all IITs, noting:
“Transparency in process for projects and procurement along with performance: The action taken with regards to labour welfare and community outreach was noted. The work done by IIT Gandhinagar was appreciated, wherein the CPWD contractor mandatorily provides for basic safety and welfare measures, including residential facilities, creches, monitoring of the payment of dues/just wages, grievance redressal mechanism etc. The exemplary practices of IIT Gandhinagar should be introduced in all IITs and be shared on the IIT Council Website. The SCIC will continue to monitor the progress made in this regard.”
Through the web of contracts, the workers do not have a clear relationship with the ultimate employer - IIT in this case. The entire process is analogous to any generic commercial construction project. Often, there is no clear formal basis on which workers could lodge grievances on their wages, working conditions, living conditions or social security benefits. Letters to the main building have proved to be of little-to-no help. Thus, in many ways they are, effectively, ‘informal-sector’ workers, lacking in any ‘formal’ labour rights. While there are laws for their protection and social security, the impact of these laws seems to be minimal.
हम पाँच तारीक़ तक कोल्कता में top करते थे class को | बीच मे काम करने के लिए थोड़ी देर आ गये मुंबई, और फिर पढ़ने के लिए try किया, और पता चला की हमारा mind बिल्कुल...मतलब यून हो गया |
“Labourers are not all under my purview. Institute doesn’t hire any labour. When a job is given to the contractor, the contractor is responsible. In work orders, all the rules are very clearly mentioned. In fact, in major projects, if space is required, the contractor is responsible for housing them after due verification of their credentials - Aadhar card, ration card, etc, based on which IIT provides entry passes. We also provide the contractor with the required electricity, water on charge who would then provide it to the workers living in camps. All these are well taken care of. Having said that,” the Dean IPS adds when questioned about the Institute’s actions towards workers, “the institute has taken action to provide welfare. You don’t see any children of workers on the construction site anymore. This is because, we fund a center to take care of these children. IIT Bombay does take utmost care for labour welfare.”
However, only one thing seems to have caused any of the initiatives to change the status-quo - student activism. Any form of interaction and engagement with this community was established through student efforts alone.
Labourers are not all under my purview. Institute doesn’t hire any labour. When a job is given to the contractor, the contractor is responsible. In work orders all the rules are very clearly mentioned.
Radha entered the campus in 2011, to continue her postgraduate studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) department. Back then, the Lecture Halls and the Ananta building were all under construction and it wasn’t hard to spot children playing around construction sites. She came to know that Brijesh, a former PhD student who researched in TreeLabs and CSRE departments, was the only actor to engage with the working class.
“He did it all by himself, he used to teach the students, come rain or shine. He did it everyday. Every morning and evening, he used to sit and talk to all these children and their parents about the importance of cleanliness, hygiene, and even a bit of mathematics, maybe. He used to get up everyday at six in the morning to head to this one labour camp. That is the only bit of engagement I saw back then. In fact, on all summers, he used to get up early in the morning with his wife, and on his bicycle, he used to go and water all the campus plants. He wasn’t worried about any advertisements. He just did it to change, whatever he could, all in his own capacity. Maybe it was because networking to create a larger impact was a time consuming ordeal.”
But she realized that there was no space for these children who don’t go for schooling, while the parents were away working. To bring more talk about the necessity of a creche in the campus, she made greeting cards using various photographs she clicked, and shared it during the 2011 New Year’s eve. She shared it with her friends and contacts in various departments, student e-mail groups, to Dean mail IDs and by word of mouth.
“I found six-month old tiny-tots, one year-olds, three year-olds on the construction sites. Including my own department, sadly, there was not much of a response to that - five to six responses at max.”
On 5th January 2012, Aman died after falling from the construction site of the Biomedical building during the Techfest Lecture by Nobel Laurate Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. Then onwards, along with a few other postgrad students who wanted to bring about change, she charted out ways to reach out to the broader public with a goal in mind - to build a fully functional creche for the fifty odd children of the workers. As published in 2012, this article outlines the Aman ke Liye IITB movement.
“On the night of the death, we went to the camp site. We came to know that the family was asked to move out of the campus. It was then when we actually wanted to do something about this. We started asking questions, reading labour laws, where did the onus lie? Who is responsible? We kept bouncing around for a while, with IIT saying that the contractors were responsible. We had to run to the office, then to the managers, then to the contractors. There was this casual vibe associated with all of this, as if a coconut fell from a tree.”
They had to justify all of the reasons as to why a campus like ours needed to take such an action. Dealing with the Main Building certainly wasn’t easy. And none of this happened overnight. This group of post-graduate students - Bhuvanesvaran, Shirley, Saranya Chandrashekaran, Saranya Nair, Praveen, Jayant, Snehalish, Sonam, Mani, Matthew, Sonali and Sudheer, put in continuous effort to bring about some change. This involved organizing signature drives among students, faculties, and even organizing an open house session. Although not much enthusiasm was shown by the students, the faculty responded in larger numbers. “We used to meet on different roof-tops every evening to talk to interested faculty as we did not have any space.”
Decades back, right from the time when Hostel-10 was first built in the campus, there had been demands to build a creche. Involving the Mumbai Mobile Creche, an NGO creche service, plans were charted out to come up with a daycare center for fruition. Years later, a day care center, called the Shishu-Vihar, was built. But it was meant for the children of faculty members, not the workers. This group of students tapped into all that dialogue to get some headway.
While parallely trying to spread the awareness of reason for action among the student-body, hoping that it’d snowball, they also engaged in discovering all these camp sites and tried to interact with all the people involved, their issues - to know and understand the population better, and more importantly, to get some data from all of this.
“We were newcomers. It was tough to break the ice with these workers. We can’t just walk into someone else’s lives and ask if everything is alright. We can’t ask them to share with us their fears and insecurities. They’ll always tell that everything is alright. You know, you can’t always just walk into a staff resident's house with all such questions about their lives and their children. The contractors told them to not let us students interact with children and their families. We couldn’t take any photographs."
It seemed as if we were just supposed to study.
Sonali Kulkarni, a PhD student in the Chemical Engineering department adds that there always were bureaucratic bottlenecks. There were times when the students had to convince the institute of the responsibility of building the creche. Around mid-march, some parts of the campus wanted to back-out from the implementation of the Lakeside community hall, which was initially allocated as a center.
No BTech students were involved in any of this. Till late September, the group had to stand through all trivial dealings - from the allocation of furniture and maintenance to a sustainable functioning of the center. Creating an entire system of managing the operational costs through the Estate office, from scratch, is what this student group achieved. Overturning the occasional indifference to create change isn’t straightforward. Creating sustainable and effective change is much much harder. The Aman Day Care currently takes care of kids across all three campsites, transports them both ways, and provides them with two care-takers in a centrally located colorful easy-to-make-out building adjacent to the Estate office. Operating everyday from morning till evening, except Sundays, it caters to provide a residence for children, education, and frequently organizes sessions and trips for all children.
After the inauguration on 12th October, 2012, students have tried to create more engagement through Abhyuday and NSS in the form of student awareness, a cloth collection drive, and a Buddy programme - to pair student volunteers with worker families - to get the student community to interact with them. Apart from sharing stories and troubles, the buddies have also served to carry out other initiatives such as the issuing of ration cards to workers and conducting health check-ups. These however, were targeted only at the workers of the Golani camp site.
More can be done. Readily, one can think of using existing initiatives that provide cultural and academic education to children - run by the NSS through ‘Muskaan’ and Abhyasika - to mobilize efforts and cater to these kids as well.
◇ यहाँ पर सोलह साल हो गया |
◇ हम तो क्या, घर की देख बाल ही करते हैं, और ये बच्चे लोगों को भी |
◇ देखो ना Sir, इनके पास तो सभ हैं | Bag हैं, किताबे हैं, पर कभी पढ़ते
◇ खेलते रहते हैं!
◇ हमको तो ऐसा मौका ही नहीं मिला, जब से छोटे थे, घर को संभालते
In Katiyar, Bihar, males are married by the age of twenty-four to women aged less than twenty, usually eighteen. The couple involved have little say in such proceedings and marriage is considered to be the matter of the elders of the families involved. Relationships before marriage in this community are a strict no-go territory. Dilawar, 19, says he has stayed away from any such attraction so far, adjusting to many such rules that society puts forth. He shows his brother’s wedding photos on WhatsApp as he packs his items with one bedsheet, emptying his room. Just a couple days back, he was informed to vacate the room inside the campus. After being in here for eight months in the Golani camp, he finished his part of work in the Common building and received his due share of money. He is now headed to Lower Parel, and will start work to complete an eighty-storey complex, a project managed by the same Seth. He adds that shifting jobs in such short notices isn’t something he isn’t used to.
Back in the village, people in the community usually adhere to the rules relating leading a life. It is a norm that the males leave their home to work on construction projects, get married and continue the work while keeping the wife and children in the hometown. Later on, the kids are sent to local schooling in hopes of better employment. Although not yet twenty, he, like most others, seems to have accepted this course of life. All families I’ve spoken to, wish for a better life for their children. A life away from such labour.
“I’ve changed my number now. You can’t reach me on my old phone.” Ali elaborates on why he threw away his SIM card. “My family knows that I’m here to work and save. And I’ve been here for so many days on barely one meal without working and without the money I worked for. I can’t answer them anymore. What do I tell them. So I avoid them. It’s so much easier this way.” That was the last time I spoke to Ali. He left the campus. Probably got on some train to go back home. Probably found some new work elsewhere. Probably is still hunting for one. And I have no contact of him.
In subsequent visits and unanswered phone calls, we learned that Onnindo and his batch of twenty-three had emptied the shed and left for home. Instead, barely a couple days later, there was this fresh batch of twelve workers from Chhattisgarh who took their place in the site, unaware as to why the previous batch left. As expected, they were here to complete the work in Hostel-1. Furthermore, weeks later when I revisited the site, I learned that families from a small town lying next to the Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh state border were occupying the same sheds.
Mahendra still claims he needs to get the money. So do other colleagues who worked with him. The contractors of Unity still haven’t paid.
A significant fraction of the workers do claim that they don’t have any major complaints and have adjusted to work inside the campus. But the existence of these few cases do mean that a check is required. I don’t know how many other such cases have taken place without our knowledge or admission of the workers.
When construction activities are in full swing, there are about 500 to 600 people living in the campus with us, some with their children and families. With little to no education to help them cope with the dynamics of this profession - the medical know-how and legal responsibilities and entitlements; and with the lack of proof or paperwork relating identity in most cases, it adds to the trouble to get access to government benefits, ration and even treatment in hospitals. Improper hygiene measures, sanitation issues like blocked drains, and lack of cleanliness coupled with with issues of pests add another set of problems to tackle. All of which can be avoided with more awareness in the community and a regular effort by the Public Health Office.
There are cases in which the workers are not paid according to the work completed. There are valid concerns about the wage being below the minimum government standards. All of this needs to be taken care of by the contractor. However, from the viewpoint of the institute and its members, there is no system to check the treatment or conditions of the workers, while there exist checks for materials and building systems.
We don’t choose such jobs. We don’t have a choice. No one chooses such jobs. But we do them. And when we do them, we ought to get what we’re supposed to get,
adds Mahendra revealing his slight frustration after all the calm talk.
As a student community, there is huge potential to engage with and inform these societies of the need for being educated and educating their children, a measure to not only remove the families from being caged to this trapped economy, but also to be better equipped to process situations - hard and very often stressful situations. As one of the leading colleges, and with bright students filling the campus, we can and should enable and provide nuanced perspectives of knowledge to this class of people. This interaction, I argue, is essential for students as well, for it provides a window into the world-view of the underprivileged. A perspective which is essential for young minds to humanely understand varied lives, and thus, to form a more true mental picture of life outside in India.
It is not just about money. Yes, it does mean a lot, especially in cases where humans are stuck in a web of issues that consume their intricate lives. It is also about ethical responsibility. We should care as to how we treat the very workers who build our very campus, our very own messes, our very own labs, and our very own stairs we use to climb up higher, to the next level and onwards from there. As mentioned, there have been cases which should make us question. Perhaps we need to question as to how established professional organizations can not give due consideration to their lowest cadre of workers. As one of the leading educational institutions in our country, and as its members, it is at least time we pay attention to the workers - basic professional attention, to at least provide the minimum, legal and reasonable facilities.
As mentioned earlier, we could start by acknowledging the lapses, taking corrective action where necessary and by emulating IIT-Gandhinagar’s or framing our very own formal policy and follow the agreed upon ideas laid out by the SCIC in its 47th meeting - to encourage student involvement and treat workers more professionally in a consistent manner. And ultimately, to set an example, as we do in many advanced technological fields.
The Dean had no comment to make on any formal policy in relation with the Senate meeting.
“The Unacknowledged Lives of the Bricklayers” was a project taken up by Sreesh Venuturumilli in his Insight Editorial tenure in early 2015. Since then, Sreesh spent months interacting with the construction workers in the institute and in the city outside to understand their nomadic way of life, their hardships - economic, social and beyond. He graduated this year with a B.Tech. in Engineering Physics. Through this article we have made an effort to paint their life in the institute, their difficulties in the construction industry where more often than not, their voices go unheard and how the institute and students over the years have taken up efforts to improve their living conditions on campus.
Salik Ansari, a final year M.Des. student took up the initiative to portray the nomadic lives of construction workers on screen last year. Over the summers, in collaboration with Insight and IITBBC, the idea of a documentary was taken up and Salik has put up a wonderful collage of incidents from their lives in his 38 minute documentary ‘Makaan’. So far, the documentary has been screened at Jehangir art gallery receiving critical acclaim from numerous film directors and artists. We invite you to the documentary screening in IDC from 5 pm to 7 pm on the 1st, 2nd & 3rd of November.
We hope to hear from you on this article, a first of its kind initiative taken by Insight. Do send us your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org . Looking forward to seeing you at the documentary screening!
Shreerang and Shreeyesh
Chief Editors, Insight