The sector boomed in the last two decades, absorbing unskilled workers who fled the farming crisis. It has stalled in the last six years, and demonetisation also dealt it a blow. There are now fewer jobs, and construction workers have nowhere to go, writes Amulya Gopalakrishnan
After nearly four decades in construction work, 62-year-old Babu Lal has a bleak, philosophical view of the business. A raj mistri (expert mason) in Dwarka, he has been working in Delhi since 1981, and has seen the industry blaze with activity over the 1990s and 2000s, sputter and then cool. “Pehle kaam zyaada tha, aadmi kam. Today, there is a crush of workers, less work, and unemployment everywhere,” he says.
“It was poverty that drove many of us here to this job. The mazdoori began when the water started drying up,” he says. Construction has been the leading job-creator in the last couple of decades, absorbing people who fled thankless farming jobs.
Construction jobs had surged several times over a decade ago — from only 17 million in 1999-2000 to 25.6 million in 2004-05 and 50.3 million in 2011-12. It became a bigger part of the jobs pie — from claiming 3.2% of the workforce in 1983 to 10.6% in 2011-12. In those boom years, out of every five non-farm workers, one worked in construction.
That story has stalled in the years since. The latest periodic labour force survey shows the growth rate is sharply down, and the sector remains stagnant with 54.3 million jobs in 2017-18, says economist Ravi Srivastava, who has studied the sector. In the last six years, barely four million jobs have been added despite all the public investment in toilets and homes. Private investment has clearly slumped.
“This has implications for manual unskilled labourers who are deeply distressed in agriculture, but have nowhere to go. Earlier, those leaving farming got jobs in construction: their wages rose, consumption rose, and poverty fell. Now, the real wage rate has collapsed for both regular and casual workers,” says economist Santosh Mehrotra.
Demonetisation struck a sharp blow to construction and real estate, affecting the number and pace of projects. “I was out of work for months. Kaam abhi bhi dheela chal raha hai,” says Banwari Lal, a mason, as he smooths out a window ledge in a house he is building. “Sometimes I work 15 days, sometimes 20, sometimes it’s hard to find work — there is no certainty.”
Smaller projects, like standalone homes, are better paid than big corporate buildings, but require only a few weeks of work, while the big ones offer a full month of work, with less money. Men usually get between Rs 300 and Rs 500 for a day’s work, while women get Rs 250 for the same work. Married couples often work in pairs, in small projects. Women are confined to unskilled work like mixing masala, carrying loads back and forth, while men can do masonry, carpentry, plumbing and electrical work, which pay better.
At a large project site in Gurgaon, some women say they would like to learn too, and talk of a woman from Bilaspur who did, remarkably enough, become a mason. Women’s unskilled work is also the first to be replaced: “Now, there are machines to make the masala, so they don’t need us to do it,” says Ram Devi, a young woman from Harpalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Many of the more large-scale, mechanised building projects don’t even employ women any more.
Many workers progress on the job. Lala Ram, from Alwar, had started out with beldari, but soon moved on to painting. He watched others, taught himself through online videos. “First I learnt roller painting, then ‘texture’, for which people pay more — 1,000, 1,500, even 10,000,” he says. Usually, specialisations are related to criss-crossing networks of caste, region and ethnicity, says Srivastava. To learn on the job and climb the skill ladder, you need someone to teach you, let you in. It’s not as easy for people from scheduled castes to move up this way, he says.
Things are more difficult for migrant workers who go from project to project, living in camps on the site, or on urban outskirts. There is a chain of contractors, sub-contractors and sardars who either bring them in. Usually, the thekedar is known to the workers, often they pay an advance to their families. Given this itinerant life, too many children are kept out of school, says Sunita of Mobile Creches, an NGO that provides daycare for construction workers.
There has been an array of laws that applies to these jobs; the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996, mandated welfare boards to look into safety, insurance, children’s education, medical and maternity benefits and so on, to be covered through a cess levied on employers. In 2006, the Supreme Court started monitoring its implementation. In Dwarka, Sunita Sharma of the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangh, which started in 2005, is helping renew registrations, and women trickle in now and then, for help with papers, to access their entitlements.
But the Centre’s new labour code is set to subsume this system. Unions are jittery about the lack of clarity on safety, and the fact that workers will have to contribute towards their own social security, rather than employers doing so through a cess. “Construction workers do not have regular work through the month and cannot afford to pay 12.5% of their monthly earnings for welfare,” says Subhash Bhatnagar of the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangh. What’s more, he says, 4-crore-plus workers have registered under the 36 welfare boards. “If these are dismantled and a new system is set up, then these benefits will be set back by another decade or so.”
Unions are effective only in a few states and localities — and they are actively discouraged by bigger companies and contractors. “There is such a hunger for jobs, that if you hold out and say you want a full Rs 500 as mandated, they will just get someone else who is willing to work for Rs 400,” says Babu Lal.
Even the settled workers are finding it harder to get by these days. “Earlier, Rs 100 would mean we could eat and drink and still have some money left over, now that isn’t possible. Even Rs 1,000 means less now. There isn’t enough to make ends meet, to pay rent and cooking gas and food,” says Sampat Ram, a carpenter. Some of them don’t have a choice but to work “jab tak haath pair chalein”, they say, describing a woman over 65, a widow who had no choice but to carry on with hard labour at the site.
“I don’t like being covered in dhool-mitti, staying dirty all day. But it’s a job, and in the evening no one really hates their life,” says Lala Ram. He and his friends swear by the restorative properties of gur (jaggery) which, they say, clears the throat and chest of dust particles. And that way, even hard days have some sweetness in them.