March 29, 2020
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Wish The Dross Away

There’s a heavy cost to making Delhi glitter for the games. It’s what no one wants to look at.

Wish The Dross Away
Jitender Gupta
Wish The Dross Away

Under The Carpet

  • The capital will have 30 lakh homeless after the Commonwealth Games
  • 12-15 lakh of them will be migrant labourers who build the games sites
  • One lakh families have been displaced to facilitate beautification plans and build parking lots
  • About 2,000 boys aged 14-16 years are working at several games sites in gross violation of labour laws
  • So far, over 70 deaths have taken place during construction work and due to diseases caused by the unhealthy conditions prevailing at the living quarters of the labourers
  • 50,000 adult beggars and 60,000 child beggars will be removed from the city for the duration of the games and housed in camps on the outskirts
  • There is anger over the money that is being splurged. Also at the new taxes announced by the Delhi government.


Delhi may well be bringing its citizens world-class infrastructure, thanks to the Commonwealth Games (CWG). But the human cost of development and the long-term impact on the poorer sections are either being underplayed or overlooked. As work races to meet the October deadline, stories abound of violation of labour laws, use of child labour, shabby living conditions, even deaths. The long-term cut: the CWG will leave behind lakhs of homeless.

Around 15 lakh migrant labourers working in the capital are likely to be rendered homeless once their work for the CWG is completed. Add to that the one lakh families whose jhuggis have been bulldozed to beautify the city or to create parking lots. Since they haven’t been provided alternative housing, these people are either setting up makeshift settlements on the outskirts or on the roadsides. It’s not as if the government doesn’t understand the scale and magnitude of the problem. “We will have about 30 lakh homeless in the city after the games,” says Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit. “This is a serious concern. Housing for them will be a priority after the games.”

That “after”, sincere and well-intentioned though it may be, is a giveaway to what might never get done, considering how the system works and considering the overwhelming numbers involved. And the amorphous noise of the suffering millions will drown out the pathos of individual stories, like that of Rani. For the last ten years, she lived with her husband and three children in a one-room house near the Hanuman temple in Connaught Place. A few months ago, they were asked to vacate to make way for a parking lot. No alternative housing was provided, so the family began to live on the pavement and it’s from there that the children go to school. With the games drawing nearer, they fear another eviction.

Does India love them back? A labourer inside one of the shacks of metal sheets that pass for accommodation for the workforce at a games site.

An estimated 1 lakh families in and around the capital have been evicted ruthlessly to spruce up the city for the games, adding to the numbers of homeless. This has been noted by the Delhi High Court. In a judgement directing the state government to restore shelters that were bulldozed last month, the court said: “We think you want to show the foreigners coming for the games that there are no poor people in India.”

The Delhi government has also asked neighbouring states and those like Bihar, from which migrants are known to arrive in the city, to take beggars back. None has obliged. Now, the plan is for the 50,000 adults and 60,000 children begging in Delhi to be housed in camps outside the city during the games.

“If we are building a world-class city, we should have world-class standards for workers. It’s very frustrating that the state is breaching its own laws.”
Harsh Mander, SC-appointed poverty commissioner

Then there’s a cruel dispensability at play. The CWG organisers themselves employ a workforce of 12 lakh, of which about one lakh are involved in building the games venues. The rest work with organisations making ancillary contributions to the games effort, such as the pwd, Delhi Development Authority, New Delhi Municipal Council and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. By law, all workers are required to be registered and their ID cards must specify their skill. They are entitled to minimum wages, insurance cover and other benefits. However, only some 22,000 workers are registered. So contractors get away without paying what they are bound to. In its eagerness to get the work done in the 180-odd days left for the games, these agencies are unlikely to insist on contractors going by the rule book.

Dilip Chauhan of Bihar has been a labourer in Delhi for the past three years. He first worked in Gurgaon to construct a residential complex and came to the main CWG village site near Akshardham two weeks ago. Chauhan, his wife, his eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son live in a makeshift tent by the main road near the work site. The son joins him at work, helping him mix mortar. Chauhan hasn’t been issued an ID card, and he’s still hoping the contractor will accommodate him in a labourers’ camp. That may never happen.

Harsh Mander, the poverty commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court, says labour laws are being blatantly violated. “We have a fair amount of laws for the protection of labourers. But laws in the interest of the poorest never get implemented,” he says. “A construction worker must be provided minimum standards, apart from wages. If we are building a world-class city, we should have world-class standards for workers. It’s very frustrating that the government is breaching such a progressive legislation. The state is breaching its own laws.”

Even the high court has asked if the government wants to show foreigners arriving for the games there are no poor in India.

At camps Outlook visited, living conditions were unhygienic, a fact highlighted in a report of a committee set up by the Delhi High Court. At the labour camp near Akshardham, over 10,000 workers live in small rooms, six to seven workers to a room. There’s an area in the middle of the camp for the residents to bathe and collect water for daily use. The drains are clogged; there’s stagnant water; mosquitoes breed. Officials claim children below six are given proper meals at the creche, but they all appear malnourished. “Not enough thought was given to providing decent accommodation for these workers,” says Marco Ferrario, an Italian architect and founding partner of the Delhi-based ‘micro Home Solutions’, who is photo-documenting the dark side of the games. “The government lost the opportunity to involve local society partners in assisting them on a simple habitat project.”

Living conditions in the main complexes are said to be even worse. Armed guards keep out outsiders. “The condition of workers inside is unbelievable. People are living in filthy conditions. Why can’t we go in to help? What does the state want to hide?” asks Amjad Hassan, general secretary of the Delhi Asangathit Nirman Mazdoor Union. While 25 deaths have occurred during construction work for the games, 40 workers died in 2008-2009 of meningitis and another 15 of jaundice.

Rani lost her home to a parking lot project in central Delhi. She now lives on the pavement with her husband and two kids.

According to Hassan, the number of injured are much more. They are either sent back to their villages, resort to begging or join the homeless millions. Another violation overlooked by the state is that of child labour. Over 2,000 boys aged 14-16 years are said to be working on CWG sites. Lax implementation of the registration process lets contractors get away with this.

While children up to six years of age are cared for in creches provided by contractors, older children have to be looked after by their siblings. There is no designated spot or shed for this. Neither is there any adult supervision. Har Bai, from Jhansi, has been working outside the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium site for the past three months. She picks stones for the pavement being made outside and has to keep her children at the workplace. “My children are not allowed in the creche because we work for a sub-contractor. There are no extra facilities for them,” she says. “When they fall sick we have to spend our own money and take them to the hospital. The contractor does not care.”

Mander says there’s little will to implement laws for the poor. “It is not difficult to register all workers. It would take just three months,” he says. “But the government is turning its back on them. Instead, the government is allowing people to make illegal profits at the cost of the workers. I don’t think this city should have the choice between getting work completed by October and giving workers their rights. It must do both.”

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