AMARPAL SINGH VERMA
Hanumangarh, Rajasthan: “I get the same assurance every time I visit the labour office. Nothing happens afterwards,” frets Kala Singh (35), a construction labourer from Amarpura Theri village in Hanumangarh district. He has been waiting patiently for the last one-and-a-half years, after applying for financial assistance for house construction under the Rajasthan Construction Workers’ Accessible Housing Scheme.
Baljit Kaur (32) of the village faces a similar plight. To support the education of her daughters studying in class 10 and nine, Baljit applied for a scholarship under the Construction Workers’ Education and Skill Development Scheme. It has been two years, but she has not received a penny.
Under the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, Rajasthan offers 13 welfare schemes for construction workers registered with the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board (BOCWWB). However, the list of pending applications under these schemes has only been growing since March last year. Even for applications approved earlier, money is yet to be provided.
“Schemes are really good. They hold the potential to bring construction workers out of poverty. But due to the government’s anti-labour attitude, the applications are either stuck or rejected in the name of verification,” said Harendra Singh, general secretary, Rajasthan Construction Workers’ Union affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, and a former BOCWWB member.
Big schemes, small benefits
Apart from scholarship and accessible housing for construction workers, Rajasthan has launched schemes for their life and future security, monetary assistance for tools, maternity assistance, aid for silicosis patients, for those injured during accidents and compensation to the kin, in case of death.
There are also schemes that reimburse tuition fees of construction workers’ children who gain admission to IIT/IIMs, visa fees for those who get employed abroad and interest on business loans, and incentive schemes for those who clear the Civil Service preliminary examinations or qualify for international sports competitions.
Shubh Shakti Yojana, a scheme quite popular among construction workers, has a provision of Rs 55,000 for the marriage of a beneficiary worker’s daughter. However, the portal to apply stopped working four years ago due to maintenance issues. “I applied five years ago for my daughter Kavita’s marriage, but did not get help despite visiting the labour office several times. Finally, I got tired and stopped pursuing,” said Sarban Meghwal (45), a labourer from Araiyanwali Dhani.
In March last year, Rajasthan Labour Minister Sukhram Vishnoi informed the Legislative Assembly that about two lakh applications under Shubh Shakti, amounting to Rs 1,056 crore, were pending from the previous government’s tenure while the Labour Welfare Board only had Rs 634 crore in its kitty. Vishnoi also said that till March 2022, about nine million applications were pending under all schemes combined with a total liability of Rs 2,459 crore. He promised that actual numbers would be arrived at after verification and that all pending applications will be disposed of within three months.
“We have verified all applications till February last year. Around eight lakh applicants were found eligible and we will disburse the money as and when funds are available,” Labour Welfare Officer Asif Sheikh told 101Reporters.
Lack of funds is the main reason for delayed disbursal, informed Hanumangarh District Labour Welfare Officer Amarchand Lahiri. “Some approvals have come for education scholarships, but sanctions related to death relief, housing and Shubh Shakti are stuck for want of more budget,” said Lahiri.
Harendra, however, alleged that the Labour Welfare Board funds were diverted elsewhere during the COVID-19 pandemic and that is the main reason for delay in implementation of schemes for labourers. “The state government borrowed Rs 328.50 crore from the BOCWWB and it has not been returned to date,” he said.
In response to a question in the Legislative Assembly, Vishnoi admitted that Rs 310 crore was given to RajCOMP Info Services Ltd (a state government entity to implement e-governance) and Rs 18.50 crore to district Collectors from the BOCWWB. “The government took such a huge amount of its own free will. Not even a board meeting was called to take formal approval. We will raise this issue in the upcoming board meeting and demand that the amount be returned,” BOCWWB member Harkewal Singh told 101Reporters.
The Labour Department has also failed to collect cess that is to be charged on every building construction costing more than Rs 10 lakh, Harkewal alleged. A 2009 law enacted by the Central government made 1% labour cess mandatory for any construction above this range. The amount is to be used for the implementation of the 13 welfare schemes.
“Many a time, the department officials, in connivance with builders, register the construction cost to be less than Rs 10 lakh. Labour cess is deposited only by registered construction companies and contractors working on government tenders,” alleged Harendra.
Sheikh accepted that the practice was common and said efforts were being made to increase cess collection.
Rejections on the rise
Harendra cites that the Labour Welfare Board has been rejecting more applications than what it has accepted. “Up to April, 32,62,320 applications were received. Of these, about 11.5 lakh applications were accepted, while around 14 lakh were rejected. Seven lakh applications are pending with the board. Only a few have been paid the scholarship amount. Schemes that promise more monetary benefits such as Shubh Shakti and Accessible Housing and death claims are all pending,” said Harendra.
High rate of rejection has given rise to corruption. Brokers promising to get applications approved have entered the scene. When Harpreet Singh, an electrician in Jandawali village died, his wife’s application for assistance was rejected without any reason.
“A broker approached them asking for Rs 1 lakh to get the amount sanctioned. The poor family could not pay this amount and was deprived of the help,” said Sevak Singh, a labour leader in Jandawali. About 250 applications have been rejected in Jandawali panchayat and surrounding villages, Harendra added.
A few months back, the labour officer in Jalore district lodged a complaint with the cyber-crime police against people calling construction workers and demanding money in return for sanctioning assistance under the Shubh Shakti Yojana.
E-Mitra, a single window online platform for accessing government and private services in Rajasthan, has also come under the radar for duping construction workers. “The Shubh Shakti Yojana has been closed for four years, yet labourers are made to fill the form at these centres,” said Bahadur Singh Chauhan, district secretary of the Rajasthan Construction Workers’ Union.
In November 2020, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) arrested three people in Sriganganagar, including an e-mitra director, for accepting Rs 4,000 in bribe for getting a construction labourer’s scholarship cleared. When caught, they confessed to colluding with the Labour Department officials. In 2021, in Ajmer district’s Jawaja village, the ACB caught an e-Mitra operator and his partner while taking a bribe of Rs 15,000 for issuing a certificate of silicosis to a disabled labourer so that he could get pension.
According to Lahiri, the department has repeatedly issued warnings against touts and self-proclaimed agents. “If a person asks for money in return for getting benefits under various schemes, a complaint should be immediately lodged with the district labour welfare officer or on the 181 helpline,” he said.
“Many applications are rejected citing verification. Those with approved applications have also not received the benefits, which shows the government is not taking these schemes seriously,” said Raghuveer Verma, Hanumangarh district secretary of Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Demanding that the government should immediately return the money it borrowed during the COVID-19 period, Harendra said the schemes for death claims, housing, maternity and scholarships are useless as the amount is not sanctioned within the prescribed period. If the department faces problems in verification, they should register labourers only after checking with the registered construction labour unions in the locality,” he said.
(Amarpal Singh Verma is a Rajasthan-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)