For 30 years, Delhi-based NGO Nirmana has been working to “build an inclusive India” by campaigning for the rights of the country’s 10 crore construction workers.
In 1991, the Indian economy opened up, allowing foreign direct investment in construction, boosting the sector. It also pushed many out of agriculture and to unskilled and unorganised labour like construction. But even as workers grew in numbers, there was no law in place to safeguard their rights.
At the time of liberalisation, Delhi-based non-governmental organisation Nirmana was already campaigning for the organisation and rights of construction workers in the city, many of them migrants. The genesis of Nirmana lies in the formation of the National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour.
Nirmana was formed to provide logistical support to the Committee. And to do so, they organised and mobilised construction workers, making them the primary stakeholders in the formation of a law designed to protect their rights.
“We used to work from about 8 or 9 am in the morning to five in the evening. After the day’s work, we would go to the settlements where the workers lived and spread awareness about the need for a law and how all of us could work towards it,” says Umesh Singh, a former construction worker. The movement’s emphasis was also on ensuring that construction workers lead their own struggle.
Without a law in place, construction workers were vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of their employers, and also deprived of employee benefits like pension and maternity benefits. As migrants, many were, and continue to be, at the threat of eviction and alienation; the threat affected not only the workers but also their families, especially children who would often have to spend the day in the vicinity of the construction sites instead of school.
The staff of Nirmana workers, often workers who also worked as campaigners, took a participatory approach right from the conception of the act, to its implementation monitoring.
“We go door to door to raise awareness. The laws have been passed but not everyone knows about them, since the government does not put them up as public notices that workers can access,” says Bimla, a community mobiliser with Nirmala whose father and husband are construction workers.
In 1996, Nirmana’s efforts led to the passing of the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act and the Building and Other Construction Workers Cess Act passed. Commonly known as the BOCW Act and the Cess Act, respectively, the former regulates the terms of employment and ensures that the labourers are registered as formal workers, and the latter makes it compulsory for employers to pay a cess towards a common welfare fund.
Nirmana’s work, however, did not end there. It took ten more years for the Supreme Court to take cognizance of the non-implementation of the Acts, and in 2006, the Court issued directives to state governments and Union Territory administrations to implement the two laws.
The organisation then carried out a social audit of the work done under the BOCW boards as well, and in March 2018, the apex court once again pulled up the government for not implementing the two laws. Amidst other irregularities, the Court also found that out of the 37,000 crores collected under the Cess Act, only 9,500 crores had been utilised, and a disproportionate amount had been utilised for administrative purposes rather than workers’ benefits. The Court has also directed the Labour Ministry to form a Model Scheme for the welfare of construction workers, in consultation with NGOs working in the field. Nirmana’s activism had a key role to play in getting the Supreme Court to act.
The organisation is now fighting for national level registration of construction workers, a recommendation which the Centre itself made in 2015 but has not seen through. Currently, workers registered in one state are only licensed to work in that state. While they can work elsewhere, they will not be governed by the laws, and will be deprived of the benefits under it if they do so.
“This rule serves as a deterrent to migrant workers for whom getting registered in Delhi will serve no purpose once they go to their home states. Moreover, the registration process requires 90 days of work to be done beforehand; for migrants, it is also difficult to get 90 days of regular work,” says Chinmayee Samal, Manager Advocacy, Nirmana Staff.
While construction workers, under the aegis of Nirmana, have initiated the movement and kept it alive, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that their rights are secured. “The government is now trying to implement a new social security scheme for the workers but we want to urge them to implement the existing ones,” says Subhash Bhatnagar, the chief functionary and founder of the organisation.
Video by Community Correspondent Ashish Kumar
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team