The Welfare of Construction Workers in India: Why Has Kerala Succeeded Where Other States Have Failed?

21 March 2015

Snehasadanam, an old age home for construction workers located in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, is fairly nondescript, made distinct only by a faded board opposite the local Doordarshan office. As I made my way through the entrance, a steep slope led me to the two-story house that is the only welcome refuge for construction workers across Kerala.

MC Nayagam, a retired construction worker in his eighties, has been a resident of Snehasadanam since 2006. He smiled as he told me his story. “I never got married, and I gave the only plot of land I had to my sister, who sold it. As I was trade union activist, I decided to make the Indian National Trade Union Congress office my home.” He came to know of Snehasadanam during his stint in the trade union. “I didn’t have an alternative until I came here,” he continued.

Snehasadanam currently houses nineteen residents who receive a pension of Rs 600, half of which is deducted for payment towards the house. “To live in the home they need to be recommended either by the local Member of Parliament, a Member of the Legislative Assembly or by a registered trade union. We have only one such home right now because we are not even running at full capacity—which is 30—yet,” said KG Keshavan Potty, a retired senior superintendent of the Labour Department of Kerala, who is in charge of Snehasadanam.

On 13 February 2015, the Social Justice Bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices Madan B Lokur and UU Lalit, responded to a Public Interest Litigation petition filed by the National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour. The court was reacting to the central government's affidavit, which stated that less than 10 percent of the amount collected as cess had been utilized by state governments under the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and The Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996. Lokur and Lalit said that they were shocked at the dismal progress of the utilisation of the cess collected.

These two acts were put into operation by the United Front government, led by HD Deve Gowda, to mandate the registration of construction workers with the construction workers’ welfare board and to ensure that contractors provided them with adequate safety measures at the work site. Those who register with the boards are entitled to various provisions like pension, health care and compensation for accidental death or injuries sustained while on duty. The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act also made it mandatory for all states and union territories to set up welfare boards to monitor the implementation of these provisions.

Vikram Gopal is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.