Behind the realty glass and chrome: Sweat and squalor

October 15th, 2008 - 1:45 pm ICT by IANS  

Noida, Oct 15 (IANS) Raman Mahto, a 33-year old bricklayer, constructs ‘dream homes’ in Noida, the sprawling satellite township of Delhi whose landscape reflects India’s booming real estate industry.Just behind the site of what is touted as a world-class residential project lies his home, a tent made of pieces of old tarpaulin weighed down with bricks, which has been home to his family for the past six months.

Hundreds of workers like Raman, who earn about Rs.100 (less than $2) a day, live in a sprawling cluster of tents such as this. The crew has no electricity and relies on the floodlights at the construction site for illumination at night.

Utensils are covered under a patina of sand and cement - courtesy the construction work nearby. Accommodations have no toilets; when the need arises, Raman says there’s always the open field behind the workers’ tents.

“Water is a big problem,” says his wife Meera. “The drinking water is dirty and we use the water used for construction work to cook and drink. My children have fallen ill several times but there is no other option.”

The construction industry - growing at a rate of 15 percent annually - is one of India’s largest employers: Raman and his family are among an estimated 40 million homeless labourers engaged in the sector.

Of this, the real estate industry is estimated to be worth at least $15 billion, according to industry lobby Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham).

Ironically, the people building modern India and its world-class cities are forced to live in the basest of conditions.

Developers such as Omaxe recognise the ill - and the negative fallout that it could entail: migration of labour to greener pastures. Omaxe today runs a project that focuses on improving the quality of life of the construction workers. Called ‘Sambhawna’, the project ensures basic hygienic facilities such as sanitation, pure drinking water, proper lighting and residential facilities for people working at sites.

The company avers this initiative is not only part of its corporate social responsibility but it also checks migration of labour.

Says Rohtas Goel, Omaxe chairman and managing director: “Our initiative has not only enhanced our relationship with the workers but also helped to keep a check on migration of labour which is very common in this industry.

“Because of the poor infrastructure available to them, skilled workers often opt for overseas jobs, mostly in the Middle East, because of better working conditions,” Goel told IANS.

But the situation could yet improve for the Indian construction worker.

Early last week, the government said it has become incumbent on the industry to provide facilities such as fuel for cooking, mobile toilets, potable water, healthcare and crèches for workers and their families while getting environmental clearance for development projects.

“Construction workers and their children living in slums without even the basic facilities at most of the construction sites is not uncommon. This is certainly a welcome step by the government,” said a spokesperson of real estate major DLF.

“When we tied up with Laing O. Rourke (British construction firm Laing O’Rourke Plc) for construction projects in Gurgaon, we started providing our workers with living space with a sewage-treatment plant and 24-hour power, bathroom, first-aid centre, something not available in even some of Delhi’s neighborhoods,” he added.

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