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.”

 
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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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