by Emily Wax
Sunday, October 5, 2008;
GURGAON, India — Rubbing the cement dust from her eyes, Gudiya, a 10-year-old girl with braids and a torn frilly dress, weaved her way through a column of women in tattered cotton saris hauling bricks on their heads. She slipped into a labyrinth of ramshackle shelters in this New Delhi suburb, her tiny legs sprinting over stacks of 10-foot-long steel rods.
It was dusk, and the air was heavy with the fog of cooking fires. Gudiya, whose name means doll in Hindi, boiled a pot of lentils for her family on what passes here for a stove — a pile of kindling surrounded by rocks.
That’s because this is Gudiya’s home: a construction site.
Gudiya has grown used to being shuttled from one such site to another. Two years ago, her parents gave up farming for jobs spawned by New Delhi’s construction bonanza. They have helped build shopping malls, houses and highways, aspiring to one day be part of a new, more prosperous India.
But with every glass-and-steel skyscraper and high-tech call center that goes up, a slum also rises. And efforts to demolish those slums have only pushed thousands of migrant worker families like Gudiya’s to squat in the very structures they are building, hanging their laundry on clotheslines strung between support beams.
“I don’t always like it here. My parents are always working, and it’s lonely,” Gudiya said, sitting on a mound of earth dug up to make way for a condominium and shopping complex near her family’s shanty.
Her mother, Vimal, 35, stared at the ground. “We were hoping that if we came here, things would be easier than in the village,” she said. “At least here we can get work.”
Gudiya and her parents are among an estimated 40 million people, mainly unskilled porters, bricklayers and other low-caste laborers, who have left poor and remote areas to build the new India in emerging towns such as Gurgaon, just outside India’s capital. By contrast, an estimated 2 million people work in software jobs. The construction industry is one of India’s largest employers, and it is growing at a rate of 15 percent a year.
The work sites are often dangerous. India has the world’s highest accident rate among construction workers, according to a recent study by the International Labor Organization that cited one survey by a local aid group showing that 165 out of every 1,000 workers are injured on the job.
Anil Swarup, director of labor and welfare at the Ministry of Labor and Employment in New Delhi, has said the government is “very concerned about the accidents that are taking place, and we are looking into ways to do better.” Builders associations also say they are improving conditions.
Still, workers rarely wear helmets, and work sites often lack fire extinguishers or first-aid kits. In India, multistory buildings are demolished not with explosives or wrecking balls, but by dozens of laborers with pickaxes and sledgehammers. Since most families live on-site, children and toddlers often wander unsupervised amid the rubble and scaffolding, raising accident rates, labor rights groups say.
In the absence of clean drinking water and flush latrines, cholera and other diseases spread quickly, and many people suffer hacking coughs caused by inhaled paint fumes and cement particles. About 70 percent of the children at construction sites suffer from malnutrition, compared with the national average of 21 percent, according to a study last year by Mobile Creches, a nonprofit group that provides day care and schooling for an estimated 1,800 children at 24 construction sites in New Delhi.
“Today the outward story of India is one of a boom, of new construction projects, of growth. But that boom is on the backs of the poor and lower castes who are building this new India,” said Mridula Bajaj, former executive director of Mobile Creches. “Does a new India want to live with thousands of worker slums next to five-star hotels and offices?”
Pay for many migrant workers hovers around 50 cents a day, far below the official minimum wage of about $2 a day. And since the workers are often paid by the day and stay only a few months, they have little or no access to government-backed health and retirement benefits.
“The larger problem is there is a very deliberate effort to keep labor cheap, and because of the poverty and population density in India it can be done easily,” said Subhash Bhatnagar, a lawyer with the National Campaign Committee for Unorganized Sector Workers. He has been pressing the government to enforce a 1996 law that protects construction workers. “Lack of dignity for manual labor and very low pay has always been a truth in India. It is part of the caste system, part of our history,” he said.
Under India’s ancient caste system, manual labor such as cleaning latrines, sweeping streets, hauling loads and firing cooking bricks is stigmatized as work performed by those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Members of lower castes make up 70 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people, and millions of them are flocking to the cities, hoping for better jobs and better standards of living — if not for them, then for their children.
“In India, the caste system has always made it so the haves don’t have a sense of the have-nots,” said T.K. Mathew, chief executive of Deepalaya, a nonprofit organization that educates children who live in slums. “Most people are not emotional about the living conditions of construction workers. Without a change in public opinion, the conditions will not change.”
For most migrant workers in India, like Gudiya’s parents, the decision to work in construction is born of a lack of options. For a few, it offers a chance for social mobility. In Gudiya’s case, she is able to attend a Mobile Creches primary school, a small concrete structure on the dusty Gurgaon construction site.
For a few hours each morning, after she finishes washing the family laundry, she and other children learn to spell their names and practice basic math skills. They sing, draw in coloring books and dance.
“I enjoy being a learner so much. Math is my favorite,” said Gudiya, whose tiny ribs show through her dress. She looks several years younger than her age.
She spends much of her time babysitting her siblings. She said she misses her grandparents, back home in the village, and fresh milk from the village cows. Because of crime at the construction site, parents often tell their girls to stay indoors.
“It’s not as safe as the village. But at least here she has some schooling,” said Vimal, her mother. “I will stay working under the sun’s hot fires to see my child get even a little learning done, so she won’t be dumb like me and have to carry loads for the rich people.”
Despite recent record economic growth, more than half of India’s people still live below the poverty line, according to the World Health Organization.
“Conditions are less than ideal, but they are improving,” said H.S. Pasricha, chairman of the Builders Association of India, which represents construction firms.
Many of his members are considering funding more on-site day-care centers, and several have started building tented worker camps, with proper latrines, clean water and electricity, he said.
“We hope that will be the trend. We know the unskilled workers can’t afford better housing,” he said. “They want to sleep on-site since it saves them rent and commuting costs. For many of them, just getting employment is a dream come true.”
At the site in Gurgaon, many often work past sunset, by the light of naked fluorescent tubes. Hindi songs booming scratchily from radios keep them awake.
On a recent morning, Gudiya reported to her teacher that her family’s one-room metal-and-brick shanty had been burglarized; her notebooks were stolen, along with some cash and clothing. Although she had long aspired to be a teacher, she now wants to be a policewoman, trained to guard construction workers.
“I want to catch the bad guys,” she said, flashing her friends a tough face. “I want to defend us. We don’t always feel safe here.”