NEW DELHI — Three weeks into India’s punitive coronavirus lockdown, state governments are yet to transfer much-touted “emergency cash assistance” to hundreds of thousands of construction workers pushed to the brink of destitution, interviews and official correspondence reviewed by HuffPost India reveal.
As per the data available on 17 April, the states of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, both ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are yet to transfer relief to 6,04,473 and approximately 5,32,895 unpaid construction workers respectively, despite the lockdown continuing into its fourth week.
The delay, state officials say, is down to the difficulty of tracing the bank accounts of the construction workers.
This inability to protect vulnerable workers lends credibility to criticism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s lockdown to contain the transmission of the novel coronavirus without preparing for its inevitable fallout on the country’s poorest citizens.
The Prime Minister announced the lockdown on the night of March 24 without prior notice to even state governments — stranding millions of working class Indians, many of whom are now struggling to find food and shelter.
On 24 March, hours before Modi announced the lockdown, the Union Labour Ministry issued an advisory asking states to transfer emergency relief to construction workers from a nearly Rs 52,000 crore corpus accumulated through a cess implemented under the Building and Other Construction Workers Act.
Yet, as the experience of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat reveals, hundreds of thousands of Indians are yet to receive this relief despite the bombastic pronouncements of their governments.
The Uttar Pradesh government on 21 March announced monetary relief of Rs 1,000 each for 20.3 lakh registered construction workers.
On 17 April, an official document shows, the UP government had collected the bank account details of 13,66,535 registered workers, transferred money to 13,50,997, but is still tracing the details of 6,04,473 workers, almost a month after the initial monetary relief was announced.
Principal Secretary of Labour in UP Suresh Chandra told HuffPost India on 17 April that the money had not been transferred as the government was yet to trace the bank accounts of these approximately six lakh workers.
“We should have but we did not have the accounts,” Chandra said, noting the state had approximately Rs. 5000 crores in cess welfare funds. “We did not know there would be such an emergency or we would have done it before.”
“We did not know there would be such an emergency or we would have done it before”
Chandra estimated that it would take another week for the government to collect details of the remaining bank accounts.
In Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state, Vipul Mitra, additional chief secretary in the labour department in Gujarat, admitted to HuffPost India that the money had not yet been transferred to the registered workers as of April 14.
“There is a problem collecting the data,” Mitra said, referring to the bank details of the registered workers.
Three days later, on 17 April, B M Prajapati, Member Secretary of the Gujarat Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board, confirmed that the money had still not been transferred, but stopped short of explaining why.
The Gujarat government was taking a “holistic” view of giving relief not just to construction workers, but to all workers from the unorganised sector, and focusing on giving out rations first, Prajapati claimed.
“There is also concern that people may rush to banks,” Prajapati said.
Vipul Pandya, General Secretary of the Ahmedabad-based Bandkham Mazdoor Sangathan, a trade union, told HuffPost India that the government had not even transferred the money to those workers whose bank account details were already in their systems.
“I’m saying transfer to at least the construction workers who you have previously given to the welfare benefits. It will give some confidence that the money is coming,” Pandya said.
“This is shocking. This is the Prime Minister’s home state. I have written to the chief secretary and labour secretary of Gujarat, saying that all the big states have started transferring. Why are you taking so long?”
“This is shocking. This is the Prime Minister’s home state.”
Bank details missing for even ‘renewed’ construction workers
India had 5.3 crore construction workers in 2017-2018, according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey for that year. The Government of India says there are 3.5 crore workers that have registered with the respective construction boards in their states.
The Union Labour Ministry’s 24 March advisory asks states to transfer emergency relief to all registered workers, but most states are transferring only to workers who annually renew their registration.
A renewal requires workers to provide a certificate proving they were employed in construction work for at least 90 days in the preceding year. Such certificates, labour rights activists say, are difficult to come by, given the largely informal nature of construction work.
State concede that the registration and renewal process is far from perfect.
“He may not have come to our office or contacted the labour department. The renewal may have been done through a common service centre,” said Chandra, Uttar Pradesh’s Labour Secretary. “We have the Aadhar card for some, we have the account number for some, we do not have the account number for others.
Uttar Pradesh, Chandra said, had close to 53 lakh registered construction workers registered with the state. About 20 lakh, or less than half of these registered workers, had renewed their membership this year, of which the government had the bank account details of just over six lakh construction workers when the lockdown began.
On 5, April 2020, nearly a fortnight after the national lockdown was implemented, Chandra wrote a letter stating the state government had not transferred emergency payments to 9.06 lakh workers as the government did not have their details.
Of these nine lakh untraced workers, the letter says, the welfare board had the mobile phone numbers of the 3.21 lakh workers and should “outsource” collecting their bank details to “persons/agencies/institutions” who should be offered one rupee per worker registration.
Since then, Chandra said, his department had reached out to district magistrates who were dispatching field agents to get these numbers in the middle of the lockdown.
“Who can we outsource to at this point of time?” he said, explaining that his suggestion to find a third party to trace the numbers had not worked out.
All remaining workers, Chandra hoped, would be traced down and paid over the next week.
The absence of worker data has similarly stymied the efforts of the BJP state government in Gujarat.
The government announced an online transfer of Rs. 1,000 each to its registered 5.32 lakh construction workers, but is now scrambling to find their details — which is surprising, given Gujarat’s much-ballyhooed reputation of efficient governance.
The BJP state government had collected cess worth Rs. 2505.99 crores from 2006-2007 to 2018-2019 and allotted Rs 1,848 crores to the Gujarat construction workers welfare board, according to state government data.
The latest audit report on Gujarat said the state government had failed to transfer Rs. 375.97 crore to the Gujarat Board, which was in violation of the cess rules, and the Board had not finalised its accounts since 2006-2007.
Almost a month into the lockdown Mitra, the additional chief secretary in the labour department in Gujarat, said his government was still locating workers.
“The zila parishad officer is calling and asking people. Is this the way to do things in this day and age. What is the point of that online portal?” said Pandya, the trade unionist. “The Gujarat government still does not have a system to transfer money to people in a timely manner. What have they been doing for so many years?”
“Is this the way to do things in this day and age. What is the point of that online portal?”
In Haryana, where the BJP state government had announced coronavirus relief of Rs. 1,000 per week, documents show that of 3.5 lakh registered construction workers who had renewed their registration, 42,150 bank transfers failed in the first round of payment and 41,964 failed in the second round, suggesting a slight course correction.
The Haryana government put the onus of fixing the problem on the workers themselves. An email sent from Principal Secretary of the Labour Department in Haryana to all the deputy commissioners in the state, says, “The benefit could not be transferred to the 42, 150 beneficiaries due to failure of transactions due to various reasons like Aadhar mapping not done via bank account or inactive Aadhar etcetera for which corrective measures is to be taken by the beneficiary,” it said.
In Congress Party-run Punjab, where coronavirus relief of Rs. 6,000 was given to almost three lakh construction workers, Praveen Kumar, the labour commissioner, said the state government did not have the correct bank details of 11, 000 workers even though they had renewed their registration.
Field agents, Kumar said, were dispatched to track them down. “We were involved in this morning and night,” he said.