How not to look after the poor
Three days after the Congress returned to power on its developmental and pro-poor agenda, one of its ministers in Delhi says he has no idea how to disburse Rs 300 crore collected for the poorest workers, constructing new infrastructure in India’s capital, reports Chitrangada Choudhury.india Updated: May 20, 2009 02:32 IST
Three days after the Congress returned to power on its developmental and pro-poor agenda, one of its ministers in Delhi says he has no idea how to disburse Rs 300 crore collected for the poorest workers, constructing new infrastructure in India’s capital.
The Rs 300 crore — enough to provide scholarships to put 25 lakh children through school, or provide insurance coverage to three crore workers, or build 30,000 low-cost houses — is lying unused in a fund meant for Delhi’s eight lakh construction workers.
By law, the funds are to be monitored and spent by a special board, headed by Delhi’s Labour Minister Mangat Ram Singhal.
“Just because money is there, it cannot be thrown at people,” Singhal told HT. He had no idea what the board he heads should do, while his office would not respond to an HT questionnaire submitted five days ago.
The Rs 300 crore has been collected as a tax fixed at 1 per cent of a building or infrastructure project’s cost, and it reflects Delhi’s flurry of construction flurry ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The funds have doubled since 2007.
The tax has been collected after the Building and Other Construction Worker’s Act was passed in 1996.
It was to improve working conditions and provide workers, mostly landless rural migrants, a broad social-security net, from health insurance to pensions.
That can happen only if the government gets to work, getting the money to workers.
The body Singhal heads is meant to meet at least once in two months. Seven years since it was constituted in September 2006, it has met nine times; never since July 2008. It has no staff.
Contrast this with the work done by Madhya Pradesh (MP). Delhi’s MP counterpart has registered 10 lakh construction workers, including migrants from as far as Andhra Pradesh.
MP has spent nearly Rs 50 crore on 10 welfare schemes that include medical and accident assistance, school and higher education scholarships, and maternity benefits. There is a dedicated staff and website that details how the fund operates. “The minister and chairman, Suresh Sharma, takes a close interest in the law’s daily operation, and that has made the critical difference,” Basudev Sarkar, secretary of the MP Construction Workers’ Board, told HT over telephone from Bhopal.
In Delhi, 18,000 workers have registered but get few benefits, though Rs 240 is deducted from their earnings that average Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 a month.
For example, since the law began, the board has settled just one insurance claim, for Rs 15,000, and given a scholarship of Rs 100 to 50 school students.
Things have not changed despite criticism from the Supreme Court in 2008.
“What is the purpose of such acts?” asked a bench headed by Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan in response to a public-interest petition seeking implementation of the construction workers’ act. “Does the government want to have beautiful laws but never want to implement them?”
The failure of the “beautiful law” is evident a few kilometers from the frantic construction activity for the 2010 Games at east Delhi’s Akshardham site, at the JJ (jhuggi jhopdi) camp, a slum where construction workers from east Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh live. Residents pull out small, white registration books, which document their contribution to the fund — with no benefits in return.
“Can’t the fund help people like me for whom every rupee matters,” said Khargi (in her mid-40s), who goes by only one name and saves Rs 100 from her Rs 1,600 monthly salary to send son Manoj to school. Manoj is the first in her family to attend a private English-medium primary school. “This year’s schoolbooks alone cost me Rs 1,302,” said Khargi.
Thakurdas (34) has borrowed Rs 70,000 from moneylenders to fund three operations for his son Chandrashekhar this year, after he was run over by a speeding vehicle. “I have registered under the act a year ago,” he said. “But there is no aid available to us.”