A pervasive sense of melancholy hangs like a black cloud over the head of 11-year-old Bhagya even as she tries to smile and says that she has no complaints in the world.
She is lean and small, with wide, expressive eyes and an easy smile, although unlike some other children of her age, she grips a ragged broom in her hands which she uses to sweep a postage-sized mud-floored verandah flanked by cinderblocks on one side and a large tree upon which her family’s shanty has been anchored at a makeshift colony of construction workers in Dasarahalli, just outside Bengaluru.
For Bhagya and 1,500 other children hailing from the 500 households in this colony, their world consists of narrow lanes, open sewer lanes and small, mud-walled shanties, many of which have been in existence for nearly 30 years, within which entire of families have dwelled while working on construction sites as labourers, moulders and tractor drivers.
“This is all we have ever known. Being construction labourers is how we earn our daily bread,” says 50-year-old Parvathamma, a grandmother of three, who looks a decade years older.
For many people in worker colonies such as these, the daily routine involves waking up early, collecting potable water from a pump in the locality, preparing a small breakfast and getting ready for the day. For adults, this involves the daily grind at a construction site, while for tweens and teenagers, it means staying on at the colony to look after younger siblings or going to a government school, where at least, they are entitled to a hot meal at lunchtime.
At another makeshift tent colony across the city in Horamavu, 32-year-old Swami prepares to go to a worksite where he is employed as a tractor driver. “I have some agricultural land in Ballari but I couldn’t make the farm run profitably, so I came to the city to work in construction,” he says. That was 12 years ago, and while Swami still has the farm in his home village, he nevertheless counts construction labour as his primary occupation.
Other colony residents, who revealed that they were from Yadgir district in the northeastern part of the state, which has been wracked by drought since 2011, recount similar tales of hardship.
All for food
Among them is Lakshmi, a young migrant mother who has lived in makeshift camps populated with ragged rows of blue-coloured tarpaulin tents for the last five years. When asked why she had uprooted her four children from the relatively safe environment of the village to live in unhygienic colonies, she answered: “There is no rain in our village. Our farms are in disarray. There was not enough for the family to eat.”
This rural gravitation towards urban frontiers, which the writer, P Sainath recently described to DH as the greatest human migration in India since the 1947 partition, is not a phenomenon borne out of some desire to integrate into city life but is instead viewed as a matter of necessity by rural populations who feel that this is one way to tap India’s economic progress, explained Divya Ravindranath, a researcher with the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, Bengaluru.
According to the 2018 Economic Survey by the government of India, the real estate and construction sector is set to add 15 million jobs over the next five years. Already the sector employs over 52 million people and is the second largest employment provider in the country, barring agriculture.
This connection between agriculture and construction is noteworthy because of the two sectors’ twin dependence on cheap, unskilled labour, explained Dr Sanghamitra Acharya, an anthropologist with Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Director of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, who has studied migrant construction populations in northern India.
“Chronic poverty, deficit rainfall, an inability to farm, loss of land and other factors drive families from rural areas to cities where at least the construction industry welcomes them with open arms,” Sanghamitra Acharya told DH, adding, however, that this is not done without cost, as migrations often fragment families because men leave rural areas early to take up work in the city, followed by wives and children years later.
This fragmentation is at several levels, explained Saraswathi Padmanabhan, who runs a daycare centre for the children of construction labourers. “Children left behind in the village with grandparents grow up without parental guidance and become unruly, often abandoning education. While preschoolers brought to the city are left to grow wild by parents who are away working on construction sites eight hours a day,” she said.
According to Divya Ravindranath, the problem is enhanced by the fact that migrants are not only moving to cities “but once in cities, they are moving from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, following construction jobs wherever they go.”
This transience is seen as not only impacting the social fabric of families but affecting their mental health and physical safety. While precise data is sketchy, studies had shown women and girl children are subject to high amounts of harassment while on the job and off and that the threat of physical assault did not stop once the families were at their domiciles, being that most are flimsily constructed tenements which cannot deter intruders.
Coupled with this are the high health risks associated with the job itself. A 2015 study by Acharya and Sunita Reddy (also of Jawaharlal Nehru University) highlighted the hazardous nature of the work, with statistics showing that nearly 38% of the total women construction workers had reported of injuries at work site and that more than half, 51% of them reported of no first-aid arrangements at the working site.
Few families have access to basic government services such as nutritional and healthcare programmes, including crèches where young children can be dropped off.
Lakshmi and other workers complained that they were denied access to local Anganwadi services because they didn’t have copies of their Aadhaar and ration cards, plus ancillary documents. While some workers said that they did not have Aadhaar cards, even those that did said that they had been barred from Anganwadi services.
According to Prameela Vanguri, who works with migrant families, this lack of access to Anganwadis has less to do with
a lack of documents and more to do with the transient nature of construction
“Anganwadi staff are required to plan quotas for the following months, and so if an officer requests food to feed 50 children and only 30 are present, he or she will be suspended for having given wrong information. Because of this, most Anganwadi staff want little to do with migrant families,” she said.
One consequence of the lack of access to Anganwadis is malnourishment among migrant communities. A study by Divya Ravindranath of over 100 children of migrant workers found that a large number were malnourished. Government officials, however, said that social aid schemes are available for labourers.
According to M S Chidananda, the Joint Labour Commissioner for Karnataka, workers can access 10 schemes, covering educational assistance, healthcare, financial aid for marriages and pensions — provided migrants have registered for the migrant worker identity card, which costs
Rs 25 and must be renewed every year.
“Karnataka Building And Other Construction Workers Welfare Board has a sum of Rs 5,700 crore for disbursement to those migrants applying for benefits. But not enough people are claiming it. On the other hand, the Labour Department also contends with fraudulent claims from farmers and people from other professions masquerading as migrant workers,” he said.
Sunita Reddy, however, accused state governments of not doing more to inform workers of the benefits to which they are entitled. “There are crores of rupees sitting in the coffers of labour departments in the country when it should be disbursed to workers. Most workers don’t even know what they are entitled to,” she said.
Chidananda admitted that this was true, pointing out while labour inspectors had been striving to register workers at construction sites and inform them about their rights, that the effort was hobbled by the low numbers of inspectors on staff. Bengaluru Urban, which measures 741 sq km and hosted at least 3,37,697 migrant workers in 2018, has only 49 labour department inspectors.
Chidananda also pointed out that government regulations require builders to provide workers with adequate housing and sanitation facilities, and that while larger building companies are complying with these regulations, a large number of smaller builders are not.
The result is that most worker camps, which are usually organised on a vacant plot or unused public space, are dominated by tent domiciles where residents do not have access to clean water or bathrooms. At a campsite in Horamavu, workers had used plywood strips and a tarpaulin sheet to create a small bathing stall. Despite these privations, few workers said that they would return to agriculture.
When asked how long he and his wife would work in construction, Giri Sidda, a young migrant father answered with a hesitant smile: “For as long as is possible. The money is better than farming.” For others, construction work is the means to an end. “We are toiling like this under the hopes that our children won’t have to work the same jobs,” Lakshmi said.
As for Bhagya, the 11-year-old daughter of a construction labourer, the future seems fraught with uncertainty. “I don’t go to school a lot because the headmaster is harsh. There does not seem to be much point to schooling. I don’t know what I will do when I grow up,” she said.
DH News Service