Earlier this week, two labourers working at the construction site of a hotel on Airport Road were killed when marble tiles, which were being moved by some other labourers, fell on them. Police later registered an offence against the office-bearers of the construction company on charges of causing death due to negligence and not taking adequate safety measures at the site.
The incident once again highlights the plight of construction labourers across Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad. Such incidents are not uncommon at construction sites, Such incidents are not uncommon at construction sites, and in the last few years, several labourers have lost their lives due to lack of adequate safety apparatus.
The apathy seems to continue even after their deaths, as is evident from the fact that there is no data available about the exact number of fatal and major accidents at construction sites in Pune and surrounding areas. The numbers that are available don’t reflect the reality. “The number available with the labour department is said to be much smaller than the actual number,” say representatives of welfare organisations.
A police officer, who has served with various police stations in Pune, said the death of labourers at construction sites was the “most neglected” issue of all. “It is neglected by all stakeholders, such as builders, contractors, the labour department, local civic bodies and even police. And it is mainly because these labourers do not have any voices. The police machinery has failed in taking these criminal cases to a logical end. The conviction rate in such cases is also abysmally low”.
When the families of the victims seek justice, and continue to point out the lapses, their voices remain unheard. Raju Saha, a labourer who lost his brother and a cousin in a construction site accident in Balewadi that killed nine labourers in July 2016, said, “No safety equipment was provided at the site where the accident took place. The family received compensation after six months, but those who are dead will not come back. Even today, me and many of my acquaintances work at construction sites where there are no safety nets and often no helmets… but we have to work because it is about earning our living.”
Barely noticed by most political parties, most labourers remain unaware of their rights and have no information about the welfare schemes meant for them. Deputy Mayor of Pune and RPI leader Siddharth Dhende, who has worked in the labour welfare sector, said, “No one can deny that construction workers are neglected by most political parties, because theirs is a floating population… a majority of them are not local residents and so do not vote.”
There is a serious lack of knowledge, said Dhende, among labourers about their rights and about various welfare schemes. “There is a corpus fund created by the government, which gets money from a cess applied on various fees. While there is ample money in that fund, the system required for its disbursal is missing. Efforts have to be made to get most labourers registered with the labour department,” said Dhende.
When builders outsource the work to a contractor, they can’t just do away with the responsibility of the workers’ safety, he said. “Many of the contractors are not registered with the government and there is no system to hold them responsible,” said the RPI leader.
BJP leader Sarang Kamtekar, who has formed a union of unorganised workers, underlined the lack of a system in place to report accidents at construction sites. “As per our preliminary estimate, the number of deaths in Pune and surrounding areas is over 100 every year. Most of these accidents go unreported for various reasons and the labour department does not have a formal system to keep records. There are serious question marks on the way inspections are conducted at construction sites. On the part of the workers, there is a need to start using the safety equipment that is provided to them,” he said.
The labour department, meanwhile, cited logistical drawbacks and lack of manpower. Government Labour Officer with Pune Circle, M A Mujawar, said, “While it is our effort to cover most of the construction sites, paucity of manpower and infrastructure is a major hurdle. We have undertaken an initiative to distribute safety kits to labourers at construction sites… but we have a long way to go before the distribution of these kits reaches a satisfactory level.”
He said continuous efforts were being made to ensure that more and more labourers are registered, so that in case of an unfortunate accident, the injured worker or their family members get all the benefits. “As far as keeping records of the mishaps is concerned, we have to rely on someone reporting the accident to us, or on newspaper reports,” Mujawar said in a matter-of-fact manner.
The Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (CREDAI), one of the largest associations of real estate companies in India, also said that efforts to curb the number of such accidents have to be stepped up.
City-based developer Ranjeet Naiknavare, who is with the Labour Welfare Division of the CREDAI’s Pune chapter, said, “While there are continuous efforts to create awareness among all the stakeholders, there is no denying that more work needs to be done in this sector. The accidents happen either by fall, injuries due to heavy objects or electrical equipment. We are also observing that many accidents are happening due to cell phone use while working. It is difficult on the part of the developer to keep monitoring whether the contractors are taking the requisite safety measures. However, there is a safety manual in place, which every entity has to adhere to and contractors are given an advance to purchase the safety equipment.”