In the good old days, there were the Asian Games under Indira Gandhi. Inaugurated by the Empress on her own birthday, November 19, 1982, they seem like a fairy tale now. No leaking roofs weeks before the show; no front-page shockers about crores paid to shady firms; everything going like clockwork under Her Majesty’s eagle eye. Definitely no portly, shifty-eyed Suresh Kalmadi.
At that time, there was no Organising Committee. Under Indira, the organisers had to be the Union of India itself, the Delhi administration and Delhi Development Authority. The Union of India then meant Indira Gandhi. Two years into her triumphant comeback after the humiliating post-Emergency defeat, the prime minister was at her peak, way too removed from the squalor that marked the lives of those building the games venues.
As expected, these were labourers brought from the country’s starvation sites—Orissa, Rajasthan, Bihar, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh—with the promise of high wages. But in a spectacle that cost the country Rs 700 crore, the average wage paid to them at the games venues ranged from Rs 8 to 10 a day (Rs 7 for women). The minimum wage then was Rs 11; the difference went as commission to their agent. Some got not even Rs 4 a day, the rest was paid in kind: 7 kg of rice and Rs 2.80 for vegetables a week.
There were cases of bonded labour too, to whom the agents had given an advance and who had to work for 75 paise (for vegetables) and some rice per day. The agents paid for their journey to Delhi, but took back the fare if the workers left to work for some other agent.
Herded in tents and sheds without electricity or clean water, sharing one toilet per 100 workers (sometimes none—they are used to defecation in open fields, the agents explained), prone to disease and accidents, unable to respond to the free medicines given by the contractors’ doctors (where these existed) or afford private medical treatment, these wretched workers—including children—built, literally with their blood, the landmarks a generation has grown up with: the Moolchand flyover and the Siri Fort Asian Games village; the Talkatora swimming pool and the Indraprastha Sports Complex. A committee appointed by the Supreme Court (following a letter written by the People’s Union of Democratic Rights or PUDR to the Chief Justice, describing the workers’ conditions) was told of many deaths, with no records kept of them. At just one hospital (Jeewan Nursing Home), there had been at least 100 “accident cases”, ranging from fractures of the leg, pelvis, ribs to fracture of the skull with brain damage. The contractors paid the hospital bills, but once discharged, the injured workers were sent home. Similarly, the families of those who died were given funeral expenses and Rs 2,000 to go home. The agents told the team that given the work pressure, holidays were few, and accidents inevitable.
This inspection was carried out in July ’82. In September, CJI P.N. Bhagwati and Justice Baharul Islam delivered their judgement. The government fought at every step: first, by questioning PUDR’s locus standi; then by holding the contractors responsible for the workers’ sub-human conditions.
Neither argument worked. The judges upheld PUDR’s locus standi, and broadened the scope for what was then emerging as a trend—Public Interest Litigation. The workers’ right to life and liberty (Article 21 of the Constitution) and to equal treatment before the law (Article 14) had been violated, the judges held, as had Article 23, forbidding begaar or forced labour, not to mention all labour laws. The primary liability for this lay with the Union of India, the Delhi administration and the DDA.
It has been three decades. The minimum wage for unskilled labour has gone up to Rs 142. The Commonwealth Games are expected to cost Rs 10,000 crore. India now sees itself as a global power, not a developing country. But for the workers, nothing has changed. As in 1982, their plight today too would have gone unnoticed had it not been for PUDR and other such busybodies. As PUDR found, these labourers of 21st-century India are as much slaves as were their parents. One thing has changed, though—under the autocratic Indira Gandhi, PUDR could easily talk to the workers; under Kalmadi’s reign, the work sites are simply out of bounds.
Back then, a DDA official told the Supreme Court committee that it was fortunate that Rome and the Taj Mahal were built before labour laws were enacted. He was simply stating a fact so obvious, it barely makes news. As one connected with government, he knew that no big government project could be built except on the backs of slave labour. The difference is that, centuries later, the Taj continues to enthral both king and commoner; and no money was made off it during its construction.