Building ban leaves labour stranded

- November 1, 2018

Daily wagers lose their source of livelihood when construction comes to a halt, and the entire real estate sector faces disruption. A look at their plight For the next week or more, Mohammad Najar-ul will be on leave. Forced leave. Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) has banned constructions activities in Delhi NCR region. […]

Indian labouers work on an under-construction building as smog covers the capital's skyline in New Delhi on November 2, 2016. (Photo by PRAKASH SINGH / AFP)

Daily wagers lose their source of livelihood when construction comes to a halt, and the entire real estate sector faces disruption. A look at their plight

For the next week or more, Mohammad Najar-ul will be on leave. Forced leave. Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) has banned constructions activities in Delhi NCR region. For this 28-year-old, a native of Bihar’s Darbhanga district, EPCA’s ban on construction work means surviving for the next 10 days without a paisa of income.

“The managers of our contractor said that the government has stopped the work from November 1 to 10 because of pollution,” he said. Najar-ul lives with his wife and three children in a tiny hurt provided by the contractor near the construction site in Gurugram’s sector 70A.

Construction of several housing projects are in full swing in the vicinity. The construction part of it – which involves materials producing swirls of dust – will be on hold until the EPCA lifts the ban. Najar-ul and his neighbours from least five of such projects live in these settlements.

He earns Rs 210 per shift and usually pulls wo shifts a day. He estimates that not only he will end up losing wages of roughly Rs 4,000 but will also end up spending nearly Rs 2,000 in this period. “This makes upto Rs 6,000 loss for me and my family,” he said. “Even last year, I ended up losing roughly 10 days of work during the pollution ban and 15 days in 2016 because of the Noteban (demonetisation drive),” recalls Najar-ul, who has spent the last decade of his life working in the construction sector.

“Back in Darbhanga, I have no house and it is difficult to find a regular job there. My father has thrown me out of our property.

So there is no option of going back to the village during this period,” he takes a pause as his youngest daughter Shagufta tries to take out the mobile wrapped around his waist. “Ab dus din timepass karenge (For the next 10 days, we will kill time),” is how he sums up his frustration.

While he and his family will stay back in the settlement – several plans to visit their villages. The reasons vary but all are triggered by the EPCA’s reason.

This EPCA ban has come at a tricky time, suggest industry experts. The ban falls at the time of Diwali, right after which will start the Chhatt festival – the prime festival in Bihar, and in some parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Incidentally, most construction labour comes from these states.

Najar-ul’s 18-year-old neighbour Chandan also hails from Bihar but from Rohtas district. “The contractor is from my area, there was no work back home so I decided to come here,” Chandan said. He works as a construction labour in one of the housing projects in Gurugram. He has mixed feelings about this forced leave.

The fact that he is set to lose income saddens him, but the first opportunity to visit home, ever since he came to Delhi, also elates him. “I will return only after Chhatt festival is over,” Chandan says with a broad smile on his face. “Or maybe, by the end of the month.”

Hansraj, 36, at a different construction site in Gurugram, shares similar thoughts. “Staying here would mean expenses on food and travel. It’s better to travel to our villages as the festivals and sowing season [for wheat] has also arrived. We will return only after finishing both.”

At the other end of the income spectrum, the suspension of construction activity hurts real estate developers. Association of Certified Relators of India (ACRI) – a body which brings together several developers from Delhi, Haryana and UP – says that the ban will trigger movement of workers and this affects the speed of the projects.

“It is nearly impossible for the contractors to pay workers during the ban – it involves too much cost and the ban period can get extended too,” ACRI president Ravindra Agrawal told Newslaundry. He said that while it is very difficult to access the losses in statistical terms, such bans create a ripple effect on the projects. “Now once they [labourers] leave the site, it takes another 40-45 days to get back into the same system. The big housing projects are worst hit from such bans.”

Agrawal claims that EPCA ban – triggered by the dangerous air quality in the national capital region – has potentials of derailing big housing projects for a couple of months. “The entire chain of work and orders are disrupted. If construction work is put on hold, it also affects other deadlines and chain of work and supply lined up,” he added.

The body claims that over 100 big projects in Delhi NCR, that is, in cities such as Delhi, Noida, Gurugram and Ghaziabad will be affected because of the ECPA ban.

An official with one of the housing projects in Gurugram, which is aggressively advertising its Gurugram project in Delhi, said that there are two lines of work being done at the site – finishing and structure. “The finishing work will go on uninterrupted but all works related to the structure will be put on hold as the ECPA guidelines.”

According to him, finishing work is being carried out in phase one of the project – which means it remains out of the EPCA order. But phase two deadlines are set to be disrupted as the only structural work as it involves activities producing dust.

There are allegations against the developers that they often overlook the advisories and guidelines issued by the environment authorities. For instance, in the entire area from Sector 64 to 70A in Gurugram – there is obvious violation of EPCA norms.

Building material is left in the open at several sites and so debris is dumped in the open outside these construction sites. The EPCA has been urging the local authorities to ensure minimisation of dust in the NCR region but probably those orders hold no importance in the construction territories of this region.

Notably, on October 31, the Supreme Court appointed EPCA had said that in the coming days Delhi NCR “could see a sharp deterioration in air quality… This is because there is a western disturbance system in the north of India which is bringing moisture, and a cyclonic system on the eastern side which is suppressing winds.” The images released by NASA also show an increase in stable burning or paddy crop burning in neighbouring states of in Punjab and Haryana. This “combined with Delhi -NCR’s own pollution sources, could lead to a spike in pollution in the coming 10 days.” The air quality in Delhi is already in the very category and these factors would only worsen the situation.

The body has issued a seven-pointer graded response plan (GRAP) and has asked the states to ensure its implementation. Under the GRAP, all construction activities involving excavation and civil construction, except finishing work or where no construction material is used is banned between November 1and 10. The EPCA has also banned stone crushers and brick kilns in this period.

While those like Nipun Chawla, general secretary of ACRI, suggest that banning construction activities is not a long-term solution. “The governments should rather ask the developers to make sure machines which server as dust suckers are installed at the construction site. That will enable us to carry our projects uninterrupted and will also not harm the environment.”

However, the practicality of such “solutions” is always in question. Moreover, whether the small-scale developers would agree to such norms is a larger question.