Around 8 am, Dharam Singh (38) reaches the labour chowk near Govindpuri from his rented home in Okhla to find work. He waits for his turn as contractors and employers drive past, hiring workers for jobs ranging from brickwork to demolition to wall painting.
Of late, going has been tough.
In an order earlier this month, the Supreme Court called for a complete ban on construction work in Delhi-NCR as a pollution control measure.
“I found work on two-three days this month. Earlier, I would work every day,” said Singh, who came to Delhi from Bihar 20 years ago.
Dust emanating from construction sites is one of the major internal contributors to air pollution in the capital. A 2018 joint study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) found that dust and construction activities contributed 31% to PM10 levels and 15% to PM2.5 levels in Delhi during winters.
At the labour chowk, though, the conversations are less about pollution and more about making ends meet. Dinesh Prajapati (39), who also begins his day at the Govindpuri labour chowk, said: “There is nothing to do. We hang around till noon but no one comes with a job. The only work we get is painting interiors of buildings, which has too many contenders.”
The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) had imposed a partial ban on construction activities during October 26-30 between 6 pm and 6 am as a measure to control deteriorating air quality, which had reached emergency levels on November 3. Since October 30, the EPCA, advised by a task force led by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), has been extending the ban. From November 1 to 5, a complete ban was ordered by EPCA until the Supreme Court, on November 4, directed that all construction activities in Delhi-NCR be stopped until further orders.
This is the longest the construction ban, a pollution control measure under the Graded Response Action Plan, has been enforced in winter months for the past few years. Last year the ban was imposed from November 1-12. In 2017, it was for an eight-day period from November 8.
Most men at the chowk either live with their families or send money back home. Niwajiz (24), another labourer at the chowk, says making enough for even food has been proving to be tough. Plus landlords have been knocking on their doors, asking for rent that is already due.
Usually, labourers say, they earn Rs 400-500 for a day’s work. “We have been borrowing money for breakfast from anyone who is able to find work. Rs 20 here, Rs 10 there and we are able to eat something in the morning. At night, we either go to a gurdwara or a temple,” Singh said.
With the threat of heavy penalties, construction sites in Govindpuri, CR Park and Greater Kailash II have remained shut since the ban was imposed, security guards at the sites confirmed.
Bharat Singh Chandal (22), a security guard at a construction site in Govindpuri, said, “Work stopped here last month and we were told that it would restart in a week. After a while, the labourers left as they could not find any work. There were around 25 of them who had come from UP, MP and Bihar. They couldn’t go on that long without work.”