The Government of India may be seeking to project India’s construction sector as the country’s second-largest employer of the country after agriculture, providing jobs to more than 44 million people, and contributing nearly 9% to the national GDP, yet, ironically, its workforce is more unprotected than any other industrial sector of the country. Data suggest that the possibility of a fatality is five times more likely in the construction industry than in a manufacturing industry, and the risk of a major injury is 2.5 times higher.
A recent seminar in Ahmedabad, organized by the Bandhkam Majoor Sangathan (BMS) with the participation of workers, activists, builders, occupational health experts and government officials, was told that a British Safety Council study reveals revealed that not only do construction workers in India enjoy no legal protection, their on-site deaths is 20 times higher than those in Britain, 25% of the deaths result from falling from a height, and nearly 80% of the workers work in unsafe environment.
“Ironically, this is one of the rare data that we have on construction workers in India”, said Vipul Pandya of BMS, which workers among Gujarat’s construction workers. “All that we know, from random sources, is that 38 construction workers die every day working on sites. However, neither the Government of India, nor the International Labour Organization, has any authentic data which could suggest the plight of a sector which employs such a huge workforce.”
An attempt to collect data by BMS volunteer Darshan Patel, a civil engineer by profession, has revealed that in Gujarat – which accounts for nearly 13% of all construction sector investment in the country, next only to Maharashtra (25%) – the number of deaths as a result of fatal accidents were 137 in 2018, the highest in a decade. In 2017, there were 67 deaths, 2016 saw 55 deaths, 2015 saw 62 deaths, and 2014 saw 69 deaths.
Death of construction workers in Gujarat
Obtained by filing Right to Information (RTI) pleas with Gujarat Police and newspaper clippings, the data further show that 49% of the deaths in Gujarat took place by falling from height, followed by 21% deaths by buried under debris. In 74% of accidents, no FIR is registered. “FIR is registered only in cases of death. Even if the injury disables a person for a longer period, no FIR is registered”, says Patel.
Other data suggest that 38% of the victims of the accidents at construction sites were in the age group 19-28, followed by 16% in the age group 29-38; 37% were locals, followed by 21% from another village or town in the state, and 17% from outside Gujarat; 84% of victims worked on private sector sites, while the rest were from state-owned sites; and while Ahmedabad experienced 15% of fatal accidents, followed by Rajkot (14%) and Vadodara (12%), as many as 39% accidents took place among smaller cities or towns.
Reasons for so many fatal accidents are many, including lack of awareness among workers ranging from contractors refusing to enforce safety equipment on workers at construction sites, lack of awareness among workers, and lack of government site inspection (there is just one inspector in India for every 506 registered units). “Even civil engineers, who are the key persons to oversee construction, are not trained into safety”, said structural engineer Rajendra Desai.
Apart from fatal accidents, the construction industry workers are at risk of getting several occupational diseases, including dermatitis, asbestosis, silicosis, muscular skeletal disorder, respiratory diseases, etc., all of which lead to disability and slow death. These could be avoided in case there are enough physicians who are experts in occupation disease.
Dr Kamlesh Sarkar, director, National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), said, “No doctors are taught about occupational health. I am trying to push the government towards this.” Suggesting how preventive care can help overcome some of the diseases, Dr Sarkar said, “The workers shouldn’t be made to work in the afternoon when the temperature is high. Telangana has taken such a step, which is now being followed by Tamil Nadu.”
Dr Shyam Pingle, occupational health specialist with the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH), Gandhinagar, said, “There is just one occupational diseases course of three months in the country. It began after the Bhopal gas disaster. In all, 2,800 doctors have so far taken up the course. There are just four Employees State Insurance (ESI) centres for occupational diseases in the country – none of Gujarat.”
The result is, lack of awareness about occupational diseases in India. “In India, there were 70,000 to 80,000 workplace accidents in 2011. However, there were 3,20,000 cases of occupational diseases, which is four times as high. Unfortunately, we are unable to see slow death because of such diseases”, said Dr Pingle.
The government should take the blame for such state of affairs. The Gujarat government has started 36 Dhanvantari mobile clinics, which go to construction sites for health checkup. However, admits Dr Amrish Vaidya, involved with the state government, none of the mobile clinics have occupational disease specialists. The data collected under the scheme suggest higher percentage of occupational diseases: 25% suffered from respiratory issues, 12% from skin diseases, and 10% from body ache.
There is no way workers can get compensated in case of long-term disability as a result of either an accident or an occupational disease. Testimonies suggested that a worker in Keshod, Junagadh district, who fell down from a height, was without wages for 15 days when he couldn’t go to work. Another worker was told he couldn’t be compensated for his disability because he was “not registered” with the state welfare board.
A third one, a woman worker, met with a major accident. While the contractor agreed to support the worker till she fully recovered, the support stopped after three more months, though the disability continued for six months. “Women, accompanying their husbands to work to construction sites, are mostly illiterate and unskilled, hence are made to do heavy manual work, delivering bricks and other construction material. This puts them at risk with muscular skeletal diseases”, said Ramilaben of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, Ahmedabad.