social welfare

As Indians criticise Qatar construction deaths, a sad fact: India ranks No. 1 in construction worker deaths

However, a bureaucrat has an ambitious plan to provide social security cover to India's 45 million workers on building sites.

For the last week, there has been outrage about reports citing the deaths of approximately 500 Indian construction workers in Qatar over the past two years. The Gulf nation has seen a spurt of building projects ahead of the 2022 football World Cup that it is hosting.

But even as they expressed alarm at the conditions of Indian workers in Qatar, labour experts noted that the world’s highest number of construction deaths is actually recorded in India and that attempts to provide a social safety net for workers in the building sector have failed to take off.

Though the Indian government does not keep centralised records on construction workers, death and injury from accidents in the Indian building sector is widespread, noted a paper by academician Sarbeswara Sahoo prepared for a national workshop on safety, health and welfare measures for construction workers organised two years ago at the Mahatma Gandhi Labour Institute in Ahmedabad. “India has the world’s highest accident rate among construction workers,” he said, quoting a survey by the International Labour Organisation that stated that 165 out of every 1,000 construction workers suffers an injury while at work.

“Workers in this industry face a lot of health issues,” Sahoo said. “They have spinal cord problems because of the weight they carry, back issues, respiratory problems because of the amount of dust around them. Their living quarters are not hygienic and they are packed together in small spaces.”

His paper also pointed out long-term health hazards. “There is a very serious risk of cancer from the handling of asbestos," Sahoo said. "Equally alarming is the number of workers who succumb to dust-related illnesses, asbestosis, silicosis, mostly in the process of raw materials for construction.”

However, India’s estimated 45 million construction workers lack a social security net.

“Construction workers have been demanding social security for years,” said Sahoo. “But as they are not contractual employees, they have never been eligible for social security schemes.”

This might change with a proposal being discussed very seriously at the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation. The ESIC, which was established in 1952 to provide for factory and company employees, is India's largest social security provider. It provides medical and social benefits to employees of all establishments, private or otherwise, that employ a minimum of ten people.

“Over the past 15-20 years, ESIC’s scope has grown to the extent that we can seriously think of giving [construction] workers social security,” said BK Sahu, Insurance Commissioner (Revenue) at the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation, who is pitching for the proposal.

At present, construction worker welfare is taken care of by state-governed Construction Workers Welfare Boards across the country. These boards are supposed to disburse old age pensions, medical benefits, housing loans and insurance premiums to all workers registered with them.

However, while boards across India had accumulated over Rs 11,127 crore as of September 2013, they had spent only about Rs 1,448 crore on the workers for whom these funds were intended.

This, it seems, is the fault of contractors.

“Contractors are supposed to provide labourers with compensation and medical help if they ever have an accident, but this can be enforced only if they are registered,” said Pradeep Shinde, an assistant professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Not only do contractors make sure labourers are not registered, they also avoid those who have been.”

Labourers who know about government schemes are thus caught between the long-term benefits of registration and the short-term reality of being refused work.

In order to bring them under the ESIC’s umbrella, Sahu hopes to get administrative offices of construction agencies to register them. While he acknowledges this will be immensely difficult, he hopes contractors will be less hesitant in urging their employees to register with the ESIC than with local state boards. “It’s a win-win situation. They register the construction workers, but we pay them benefits,” he said.

Sahu’s proposal only requires the sanction of the corporation to be implemented, which means this could very well become a reality.

The scheme will give workers basic social security, especially during the monsoon when most building activities cease.

Construction work is migratory by nature. Sahu believes that the ESIC will be able to provide better security than state boards, if only because it functions across the country. “If someone from Lucknow is working from Delhi, as long as he is registered with us, he will continue to get social security benefits at his home town,” said Sahu. “It will no longer matter where he is working.”

However, Sahu's proposal will not improve working conditions on site, which remains one of the most serious problems faced by labourers today. Labourers themselves do not realise that they have even basic rights to safety on their sites, let alone social and economic benefits they can avail of off-site.

“When contractors are organising work, the most important factor becomes cost,” said Bino Paul, assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “And when you’re trying to be competitive, the first thing you cut down on is living conditions.”

Whatever the flaws of his proposal, Sahu says it will be a massive step for the ESIC towards expanding social security coverage to all citizens. “Social security is slowly but surely going to become universal,” he said. “It is inevitable. You already have a national health insurance scheme that works across the country. We have to be dynamic and visionary. We can’t run the government based on a situation relevant 20 years ago.”

 
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.

Play

The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.