One name that came up repeatedly at a public hearing in Rajasthan on Monday was Poona Ram.

The public hearing in Bhim village in Rajsamand district brought together nearly 500 construction workers who shared their experiences accessing welfare benefits under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act.

The law, passed in 1996, regulates the working conditions of construction workers in the unorganised sector. A supporting law enables the government to levy a cess on builders to fund social welfare schemes for the workers.

The workers gathered in Bhim spoke about how Poona Ram, a local tout, was able to deliver to them what the government’s formal delivery mechanisms could not – all for a hefty fee.

Amba Lal, a resident of Sameliya village, said he had paid Poona Ram Rs 11,000 to access the Rs 55,000 cash benefit that the government gives workers under the Shubh Shakti scheme. One of the schemes implemented by the state’s labour department under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act, it provides cash benefits to workers after their daughters complete Class 8 in school and turn 18 years of age.

Village residents spoke about Poona Ram’s extraordinary abilities to track down those with daughters of a certain age, who had completed Class 8 in school. He would approach the parents of such girls with a promise of getting them Rs 55,000 from the government, provided he was paid a certain sum. He would begin with a demand for Rs 12,000, making concessions for those who could not afford it.

Official corruption

But private touts were not the only ones fleecing the workers.

Many workers said that after Poona Ram approached them, a labour department official they referred to as “Lohar saab” would arrive. He would ask them to take back their money from Poona Ram and pay him instead. He claimed he was responsible for approving their cash benefits under the scheme.

Several workers admitted that they paid a part of Rs 55,000 as commissions to Poona Ram and “Lohar saab”.

Listening to these testimonies at the public hearing, Sudarshan Singh Rawat, the MLA from Bhim, Rajasthan, wryly told labour officials present there: “You seem to be offering training of a very high order to touts and brokers.”

Labour department officials said Lohar, the man who allegedly extracted bribes from the workers, was no longer in the department.

Shankar Singh of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, the grassroots activist group that had organised the public hearing, pointed out that Lohar may have retired without facing any punishment for his corrupt practices. “Criminal proceedings must be initiated against him and his pension and other benefits stopped,” Singh demanded.

Officials listening to the complaints of the workers at a public hearing in Bhim, Rajasthan. Photo: MKSS

A social audit

The public hearing was the culmination of a week-long social audit in Bhim tehsil of the schemes being implemented under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act.

Among those who travelled across the tehsil to gather information on how well the schemes were performing were young student interns from the National Law School at Bangalore and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The teams were led by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, which has been working in the area for more than three decades.

The audit teams found the schemes were faltering.

In Rajasthan, the schemes under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act offer workers several benefits: Rs 21,000 on the birth of a baby girl, Rs 20,000 when a son is born. There are different sums available as scholarships for children, depending on the level of education attained. The Shubh Shakti scheme offers construction workers Rs 55,000 once a daughter has studied up to Class 8 and attained the age of 18 years.

Workers must first register under the Act and get a diary to access the benefits. For each of the schemes, they must file a fresh application at a modest fee of Rs 40 each. Applications are done online with the help of e-mitras, or assistants registered with the state government.

Difficulties with registration

To register under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act, workers need to prove they have worked for 90 days. But while the government verifies the employment status of those who have worked under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, those employed by private contractors struggle to submit proof of employment.

“Since many contractors themselves are not registered, they do not offer such certification to workers,” said Sandeep Samal, a first-year student of the masters programme in public policy at the National Law School, Bangalore, who took part in the social audit. “Besides, construction workers work short spells with different contractors, and often cannot prove that they have worked for three months with any one contractor.”

Labour welfare officer Pradeep Kumar of Rajsamand district said 37,000 applications were received in the district for diaries under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act, 1996. Of these, 26,000 were registered and 2,300 applications were cancelled as applicants did not meet criteria laid down by law. Others were still under process.

Trouble with applications

At the public hearing in Bhim, workers said they faced difficulties filing applications. Labour department officials said 372 e-mitras had been appointed to help the workers in Bhim. But workers complained that e-mitras were charging hefty fees for small tasks, exploiting their ignorance.

E-mitras, however, contended that they were facing trouble getting the applications approved. Chatar Singh, an e-mitra, said, “I have been working since 2014, with little success. The forms I fill are seldom approved, and the people are beginning to lose faith in me. They would rather pay someone who can actually bring them benefits, than use my honest services which offer them next to nothing.”

The activists of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan alleged a yellow strip attached by an e-mitra got applications moving faster, with some applications processed in just one day. This suggested the e-mitra was colluding with labour department officials to fasten the process for those who could pay bribes.

Delays in payments

Workers said that even when the online system showed that the application had been approved, they found that the money had not landed in their bank accounts. Officials of the labour department explained that after the recent merger of banks, the Indian Financial System Code of the Marudhara Bank, where several labourers have accounts, had changed. This was one of the causes of the delay.

Another cause, they said, was that the Shubh Shakti scheme had been become a low-priority scheme after the state government decided to first compensate workers with silicosis.

The MLA instructed officials to ensure that all applications under the scheme are processed even if the money was not immediately released. All those whose applications have been rejected, should know the reasons for rejection, he said.