For the past over a decade, an unending cycle of construction has enveloped the Delhi-NCR region in a persistent blanket of dust.
Behind this blanket thousands of workers work quietly, most often in dangerous conditions without any protective gear, exposed to life-threatening pollutants. However, it’s a tough choice for them to make. Livelihood far outweighs safety and health concerns. Unscrupulous builders and contractors, despite challans and penalties imposed by state governments on the orders of the National Green Tribunal, still cut corners and show scant regard to the ministry of environment’s guidelines for curbing pollution at construction sites.
In Delhi, around 4,000 tonnes of construction waste is generated every day. This constitutes around 40% of the total waste generated in the city. In an affidavit submitted by the ministry of environment and forest to the Supreme Court in January 2015, it was noted that dust particles were the highest source of pollution in Delhi. Dust contributed to 52% of particulate matter in the air with vehicular emissions contributing to only 6.6%.
Delhi corporations clear 300 building plans every month. Additionally, construction is carried out on plots smaller than 105 square metres, which don’t require approval as per the unified bylaws. And construction in unauthorised colonies is not regulated.
At a site in Safdarjung enclave, labourers admitted that breathing becomes difficult during work and they have to keep their faces covered with cloth – their only protection against dust or any other construction-related dangers. However, most changed their stories immediately when asked to go on the record. “We face no difficulties here,” was the common refrain.
When pushed a little further an older man said they will not say anything, even if they have to keep facing difficulties. “Of course pollution is bad for our health. We know it. We have been living with cough and breathing problems. However, you need to understand we are daily wage earners. If our contractors and bosses find out that we spoke to the media about how the working conditions are bad here, they will never call us for a job again. Now, we might be coughing, but at least our tummies are full,” he said.
The socio-economic backgrounds that many construction workers come from mean that they cannot afford to nit-pick. Many are the sole bread winners of their family like Farid.
- Prepare a dust management plan at site
- Sprinkle water in and around the site
- Ensure equipment, especially diesel-run, in good shape
- Have dedicated fueling areas on the site
- Restrict vehicle speed to 20Kmph
- Don’t allow waste to accumulate as far as possible
- Don’t remove vegetation. It prevents wind erosion and absorbs sulphur dioxide
- Don’t allow diesel generator sets not conforming to emission norms
Farid said that he recently moved to Delhi to try and make enough of a living to help support his family of six. Farid works at a construction site in Lajpat Nagar. “I had cough when I started. Now, I think I am getting used to the dust. When I feel like complaining, I think of my family member’s faces; this keeps me going,” he said.
Many of these workers do not have protective gear. A little further down the road from the Safdarjung site, closer to Krishna Nagar, a smaller construction site has three young men hard at work. Two of them don’t look a day older than 16, but their rough hands speak of experiences beyond their age. They are both new to Delhi, and have just come in from Bihar. This is their first time at a construction site. “We have never worked at construction sites before. It is a new experience. It takes some time getting used to,” one of them said. When asked if they have been experiencing any health issues, they look at each other, pass a quick glance over to their supervisor, and say “No.”
However, on further questioning, they conceded that they have not been provided with protective gear by the supervisors. They work sans helmets, gloves or even masks. “We usually just tie a towel around our heads and use the same to cover our faces,” he said.
Particulate matter is the common enemy of these workers. In the short-term, exposure to particulate matter (both 10 and 2.5) can aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular diseases like asthma, cough, allergies, etc. However, if people are exposed to these emissions for long and continued periods of time, they are at risk for lung cancer.
A research paper released by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in November 2015 says higher levels of coarse particles in the air was leading to an increase in cardiovascular-related hospital stay for people 65 years and older in the US.
“The most harmful element in construction matter is silica which often escapes the human body’s filter mechanism. Over a period of time, it shrinks lung capacity and makes the person vulnerable to all kinds of infections,” says Dr Neeraj Jain, chest specialist at Ganga Ram Hospital.
When such dangerous consequences lie ahead, it is especially worrying when people claim that they have been used to it. “We have a little cough every now and then, but I think we are now used to it. We are used to working on farms in our own villages, so the dust does not bother us. It is not so bad here. Ab toh aadat si padh gayi hain,” said a construction worker. However, in the same breath, he warned the reporter against coming any closer to the construction site. “This is real potent stuff. It can burn your eyes, irritate your nose and even choke you. You are better off not coming in,” he said.