Quest for Games’ chauvinism: Labour bore the brunt

By Nupur Basu, IANS,

In the post-mortem that will follow in the coming weeks and months regarding what went wrong in the preparedness for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) 2010, one area where more skeletons are likely to tumble out will be the plight of thousands of poor labourers who worked on the project sites. The human stories of suffering and exploitation of children, women and men who were contracted to work on below minimum wages on the multimillion dollar project and the number of poor families that lost their sole breadwinner in accidents.

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Other than the stained bathrooms and dog-cat-pawed bedsheets at the athletes village beamed by foreign television crews that has made India a laughing stock in the world overnight and exposed its politicians and bureaucrats for their rank greed and total incompetence, one constituency utterly exploited by these same people has been the condition of labour employed under extremely exploitative and unsafe terms on project sites.

When the footbridge collapsed this week, 27 workers were injured. Out of them, four are in a critical condition – one is permanently disabled with spinal injury, another has a back injury and two have severe head injuries. The workers were working without helmets or any safety belts. The impact of the bridge collapse hit them instantly.

Adding insult to injury, both Chief Minister Sheila Dixit and Urban Development Minister S. Jaipal Reddy described the accidents like the foot overbridge collapse and a portion the false ceiling coming unstuck at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium as a ‘small glitch’ and a minor problem. You wonder how elected representatives of one of the world’s biggest democracies can dismiss the accident that injured 27 poor workers and pushed four of them to a critical state in hospital as ‘minor hitches and glitches’.

Now a fact-finding team constituted by Delhi University teachers, students and the Delhi Nirman Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti, a construction workers’ trade union, has reported that the relatives of the injured workers were being made to pay for medical treatment provided at Delhi hospitals.

“The relative of a worker admitted at the AIIMS Trauma Centre informed the team that he was forced to pay for the CT-Scan conducted on his brother on the night of Sep 23. Furthermore, relatives have been directed to arrange for blood themselves following the operations conducted on those seriously injured. This has been a cause of much anxiety, especially for those who have been directed to arrange for up to four units of blood!” a press release from the fact-finding team has noted. Rather than paying for all the treatment and medical tests, the Organising Committee (OC) of the Games has completely washed its hands off the matter, they have alleged.

Yet since the accident happened in the glare of the national and international media, the government had been quick to announce a compensation of Rs.50,000 for the injured and Rs.1 lakh for the workers critically injured. In response to the ongoing public interest litigation (PIL) on violations of workers’ rights on Games sites filed by civil liberties organisation People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), the Delhi High Court ordered the government to revise that sum and instead pay interim compensation of Rs.3 lakh to workers critically injured and Rs.1 lakh to the remaining. But it appears that on the ground there is no movement on the compensation issue or any help forthcoming from the OC to the injured workers.

In fact, the government’s complete lack of humanism towards the workers in the entire Games from the inception has been truly shocking. In a report titled “Games the State Plays” by PUDR, it has highlighted how the average worker had no guarantee of minimum wages, safe working conditions or dignified living conditions. More shockingly, it has focussed attention on the climbing graph of accidents and deaths of labour on construction sites.

In a recent admission by the authorities during the Delhi High Court hearing of the PIL filed by PUDR, the Delhi Metro Rail Project admitted before the court that 109 workers had died on its project sites since the work began. Earlier the government had admitted in parliament that 42 workers had died. The Delhi High Court has asked the government to compensate the workers, but so far the government has done little to carry out the order.

Most of these workers are migratory labour from West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and villages of northern India and the contractors do not even have their proper addresses. It has now been brought to the notice of the court by petitioners that the contractors who had hired them did not have proper records of the workers and their addresses. And the maximum fine for violations was fixed at Rs.1,000 only.

The civil liberties group has now requested, through the court, for the total number of workers on all Games sites from inception. Delhi High Court has also ordered all agencies involved in Games projects to provide individually the number of workers injured or killed during construction work on project sites. The total toll of workers is yet to surface before the nation.

The exploitative use of labour during the entire Games is at the root of many things that have gone wrong. Media reports that the reason for the filth- and excreta-filled Games Village was there were virtually one or two workers allotted per tower for cleaning – there are 34 towers. This in itself was a recipe for disaster. If venues are not fit for human habitation or ceilings and footbridges are collapsing hours before the Games are to begin, the role of the contractors who have cut corners on safety and labour wages and the role of the OC as the overall project manager can amount to criminal negligence.

Since most workers were poor migratory labour from villages of India, how and when and to whom the compensation will be paid remains a big question mark. The shocking exploitation of poor people without any voice may be the biggest moral scam of the now infamous Commonwealth Games 2010 in India.

(Nupur Basu is a journalist, filmmaker and rights activist. She can be contacted at [email protected])