A construction project manager asked the author, “If you educate all the workers, from where will we get labourers to build this infrastructure?”

India’s migrant construction workersImage for representation | PTI
Voices Migrant Labour Wednesday, June 03, 2020 - 16:56

In this two-part series, Pranay Manjari Samal gives us a sneak peek into the lives of construction workers who are part of what is probably the largest humanitarian crisis we have seen since India got its independence.

They build our dream homes, but live in temporary sheds. They build schools for our children, but their children don’t go to school. They build hospitals for us, but can’t afford basic healthcare. They build our roads, but can’t afford to commute. They build our cities, but they are called outsiders. They build food factories, but they die because of hunger. They build offices, commercial chambers where policy makers draft policies of ‘Make in India’. But the policy makers forget to include them in those policies, the very people who are making India, quite literally. Yes, you guessed it right, we are talking about construction workers who are mostly inter-state migrants.

“What’s your name? Name of your village? Name of post office/district?” The labour manager who was making note of the details given by the worker looked at him and asked, “Don’t you know the name of your village and district? Tell me, who is your thekedar (a commonly used term to describe a middle man who hired them)?”

It was 2015. I was sitting beside the labour manager inside the site office of an under-construction residential project in Bengaluru. This was the field immersion project as part of my master’s course at Azim Premji University. The construction workers, mostly migrants, came in one by one during the lunch break to give their details at the designated window of the site office that functioned as a counter.

The labour manager filled the form with the thekedar’s address, and kept asking questions like age, parents’ name, married or not, if married – name of the spouse. Then he looked at me and said, “They don’t even know their full address.”

I asked him why he needed to know marital details. He said it was to fill in the nominee’s name in the form, someone who can be contacted and given financial help in case of any major accident/death of the worker. I asked him if it was necessary to nominate only a spouse. He just looked at me for a few seconds without any expression and continued his work. I asked him again if the workers knew what they were giving these details for.

He replied, “They don’t even know the name of their village/taluka/district. Our job is to fill the form and submit it to the Construction Welfare Board. But the labour officers want us to submit 2,000 forms in a short time. What to do? If I add the question ‘whom do you want to nominate’, it will take another extra minute to finish my work. And I have to do this for more than 2,000 workers.”

I must admit he was sincere about his job and wanted to finish it on time. Asking the workers for their consent to nominate someone when they didn’t know the full address of their native village seemed too much to consider.

‘It’s their fate’

Being a student of education, I wanted to understand the issues and concerns of construction workers that arise due to lack of education. I interacted with more than 700 migrant workers, who were mostly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam, in those two months. I collected data on their education status, their aspirations in life, why they migrated, and their challenges in the labour colony. I also talked to project managers, contractors, safety managers, labour colony staff and others to understand more.

One worker from Uttar Pradesh said, “We work from morning to late evening. Where is the time to gossip and know each other? We just know that the workers from our neighbouring shed are from Odisha. But we never interact with them. And there is no need also. All of us from the same village and district live as a group, our thekedar brings all the things we need; there is no chance of interaction with others.”

Another worker from Odisha shared that the role of the thekedar was just loading and unloading (people, not material). All the migrants are dependent on the thekedar, as they are from a remote place and don’t know whom to contact or take help from if they are in trouble. A safety manager said, “These workers don’t have anything else to do. Just eat and work. But it is their fate as they don’t have any opportunity in their village that gives them a regular income; at least here they eat three meals a day and send enough money back home for their family to survive.”

Why do they migrate?

The answers were quite predictable: to save money for dowry during sister’s wedding, social obligations, to buy a two-wheeler, save some amount to start a shop or business in their village after a few years.

During an interview, a project manager whom I had invited to join us at the inauguration of a learning centre that we had started for the workers said, “If you educate all the workers, from where will we get labourers to build this infrastructure?”

Poverty is man-made. It is our collective apathy (that of the government and us, the privileged class) that prevents such workers from accessing education facilities that will enable them to question the status quo. As they are not educated enough, it becomes easier for us to exploit them. We want them to remain poor forever.

Why not hire intra-state migrants?

I have worked in the construction industry for 20 years now, in different capacities: as a project manager, as a student of sociology of education, and as an implementer of different educational programmes. One of the major questions to which I haven’t found an answer is: why are the construction workers almost always inter-state migrants? These migrant workers are hired through middlemen. They aren’t directly employed by the main contractor, which adds to their vulnerability.

During my master’s course and as a project manager/ development professional, I have seen many of their challenges – they are not aware of the details of their new work location or who are they working for, they keep moving to new places frequently as construction activities (brick work/ plastering/ scaffolding/ flooring/ painting, etc.) are short tenure jobs, particularly due to the technological developments in this industry.

Read the second part of this series here.

Pranay Manjari Samal is a development professional, originally from Odisha. She works with government schools in Bangalore and Mumbai. She has worked as a project manager for many years in construction projects.

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