NEW DELHI — A month since India imposed a punitive nation-wide lockdown to stem the transmission of the novel coronavirus, state governments across the country are yet to transfer emergency cash assistance to millions of construction workers.
This inability to deliver prompt and timely relief is worrying as state governments across the country are considering extended restrictions on work and movement well beyond May 3, when the current lockdown is supposed to end.
At a press conference on 8 April in New Delhi, the Union Home Ministry said that 31 states and Union Territories had transferred Rs. 3,000 crores to 2 crore registered construction workers.
HuffPost India worked with Himanshu Upadhyay, Assistant Professor of Development at Azim Premji University, to compile data from 36 states and Union Territories to find the Home Ministry’s figure is most likely inflated. The Home Ministry did not respond to HuffPost India’s request for a state-wise break down of disbursed payments.
HuffPost India spoke with state government officials between 21 April and 28 April, to find that — taken as a whole — state governments had not managed bank transfers to large numbers of the total beneficiaries they had declared in March.
The most common reason for delays in payment was the lack of bank details and Aadhaar numbers for India’s estimated 5.3 crore construction workers, suggesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-touted “Digital India” campaign to enable cashless payments has let down millions of the country’s poorest citizens at a time when they needed it the most.
“You have dragged people who are still poor and uneducated into digitization, but in the end, the poor did not get any benefit of this digitisation,” said Santosh Poonia, program manager of a labour helpline run by Aajeevika, a collective that works with migrant workers in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
On 24 March, Government of India issued an advisory asking state governments to tap into the Rs. 52,000 crores they had accumulated over years of levying a 1% to 2% cess on construction projects and make the funds available via direct benefit transfer (DBT) to 3.5 crore workers registered with state governments.
While most states are utilising some of these unspent funds to make payments to registered construction workers in amounts varying from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 6,000, states such as Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal are not touching the cess and making identical one-time payments to all those identified for a cash-transfer including unorganised workers.
“Everyone is getting the same amount. What if one man gets Rs. 1,000 and his neighbour gets 2,000? There will be a comparison,” said G. Rekha Rani, Andhra Pradesh’s labour commissioner, explaining that construction workers were included in the 1.35 crore people who were identified for a one time cash transfer for Rs. 1,000 and rations in the state.
Yet, the distinction is important as registered construction workers are entitled to special benefits under the Building and Other Construction Workers Cess Act, which lets states collect the 1% to 2% cess on construction projects. This money collected by the Building and Other Construction Workers Board in a state, by law, cannot be used for purposes other than the welfare of construction workers.
Poonia, the labour rights activist, said Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan’s policy of treating construction workers just like everyone else made no sense.
“What is the point of the construction workers paying a registration fee when he can’t avail the benefits?” Poonia asked. “States just don’t want to spend money.”
Jean Dreze, an economist and activist, and visiting professor at Ranchi University, said the relief payments for the lockdown were part of a large trend of reducing entitlements for the poor.
“For years there has been a pattern of creative accounting to reduce social expenditure, and this is visible again in the critical relief package. They (central government) have been counting pre-committed items, like the PM-Kisan, as relief expenditure,” said Jean Dreze, an economist and activist, and visiting professor at Ranchi University. “Similarly with the supposed increase in NREGA wages, which is nothing more than a routine annual adjustment that had already been announced. In this and other ways there is quite a bit of padding in the relief budget.”
“You have dragged people who are still poor and uneducated into digitization, but in the end, the poor did not get any benefit of this digitisation.”
Ground realities on money transfer
The challenges in transferring money to construction workers, HuffPost India found, have plagued big and small states across political lines.
In the Union Territories of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, the cess has been spent in providing three meals a day to around 7,325 construction workers since the last week of March. Lakshadweep had pledged Rs. 6,300 for 1,112 construction workers but had yet to release the money as of 21 April.
Of the 64,000 workers construction workers slated for payment in Manipur, 22,500 had been paid as of 21 April. Of the 40,000 construction workers slated for payment in Tripura, cash had been transferred to 24,179 as of 22 April.
Officials in these states told HuffPost India they are still trying to find the bank details for the rest.
In bigger states like BJP-run Karnataka, state labour minister Shivaram Hebbar said that of the 21,62,000 registered construction workers to whom emergency cash assistance was pledged in March, Rs. 200 crores had been transferred to 10,01,000 as of 22 April.
“Getting the bank and the Aadhar card details for so many people has been difficult,” Hebbar told HuffPost India.
In Odisha where the Biju Janata Dal government had pledged emergency cash assistance to 22 lakh construction workers in March, the state had given emergency cash to 16.07 lakh of 21.22 lakh construction workers as of 28 April, Anu Garg, the state labour secretary, said.
Garg estimated that the state government had the bank account details of about half the number of registered workers when it had pledged to pay each one Rs. 1,500 last month, and decided to pay most of them in cash.
While making the case that giving cash was better at a time when workers were having trouble reaching banks, Garg said this disbursement had also been an opportunity for the government to collect the missing bank information and Aadhaar numbers for millions of workers.
“We are also taking the opportunity to update our database,” she said.
In Communist Party of India (Marxist)-run Kerala, state labour minister T.P. Ramakrishnan said that 20,00,304 construction workers were due to receive Rs. 200.3 crores from the welfare cess fund as coronavirus relief. K Biju, the labour commissioner, said that around 68 crores had been transferred to 25% of the beneficiaries as of 23 April.
Even though Kerala is heads and shoulders above other states when it comes to spending welfare cess for the payment of pensions, Biju said the state was struggling to collate the bank details for such a large number of people.
“We are trying but it is difficult in the middle of the lockdown,” he said.
“Getting the bank and the Aadhar card details for so many people has been difficult.”
In West Bengal, the All India Trinamool Congress-led government had announced a cash transfer of Rs. 1000 to all unorganized workers who were told to fill out forms with their bank account and Aadhaar numbers after the coronavirus outbreak.
Meena Pandey, a labour rights activist with the Building and Wood Workers International, a global federation of trade unions, who tracks West Bengal, said the state Building and Other Construction Workers Board — charged with collecting cess, registering workers making welfare schemes available to them — is not even operating as key posts lie vacant.
In BJP-run Uttar Pradesh, the state government on 23 April said that it had transferred cash to 14,74,321 registered construction workers. While the state government has reached 1,23,324 more beneficiaries, it is still 5,14,679 short of reaching the 19,98,900 workers it had committed to reach in March.
Reaching the money
There are still others who cannot reach banks and ATMs in the middle of the lockdown, said Sandeep Sachdeva, who founded the Safe in India Foundation, a not-for-profit company operating in Haryana that helps factory workers who lose their hands or fingers in accidents access healthcare and file insurance claims. Following the outbreak of the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown, Sachdeva said that his company is distributing food to the migrant workers from Bihar, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh who are stuck in Manesar.
Most workers tell them that they have not seen any cash, Sachdeva said. There are a few from Bihar who have received money, he added, but many have been excluded because the Janata Dal (United) government has made having a bank account in Bihar a precondition for bank transfers.
“Our guys are meeting families on the ground. Hardly anyone has said they have seen cash from the government,” said Sachdeva. “They say that we need cash, we need to charge our mobile phones.”
“Our guys are meeting families on the ground. Hardly anyone has said they have seen cash from the government.”
The rationale that direct benefit transfers to construction workers should only come from one cash assistance scheme and the relief should not go to more than one family was echoed by officials across the country.
In the disbursement module for emergency cash disbursal drawn up by the Congress Party in Rajasthan, signed by the labour secretary on 23 March, 2020, only those construction workers would receive cash assistance if they or their family members were not getting coronavirus monetary relief being routed through schemes for people below the state poverty line, recipients of social security, or covered under the Antyodaya Anna Yojna, a scheme to give food at subsidized rates to the poorest of the poor.
It is worth noting that those who are getting emergency cash transfers through the social security route are not getting additional money, but rather their pensions are getting credited earlier.
The amount in question is Rs. 2,500 per family.
“We have ensured there is no overlap,” said Prateek Jhanjharia, the labour commissioner in Rajasthan told HuffPost India , adding that money had been transferred to 22.3 lakh of 23.5 lakh registered construction workers by one scheme or another as of 24 April.
While the disbursement module for Rajasthan said that cash to construction workers would be transferred per familyJhanjharia said that this was not the case. The official did not comment on why the state government had not used the cess for construction workers.
In BJP-run Gujarat, a government notification issued on 18 April says the emergency cash assistance would be given to construction workers who were not included in the Mukhya Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana.
But what has really outraged labour rights activists is the decision to disburse emergency cash assistance to registered construction workers per family when it has already committed to paying Rs. 1,000 each to its registered workers.
Vipul Pandya, General Secretary of the Ahmedabad-based Bandkham Mazdoor Sangathan, said that the state government had allocated 250 crores of the welfare cess on the calculation that the money would be allocated to each registered worker.
“What will happen to the rest of the money? What this means is that if there are four construction workers in a family, only the head of the family will receive,” said Pandya. “This is unacceptable. Each one is a registered worker. Each worker is an individual whose work has contributed towards the generation of cess. There is no justification for such exclusion.”
“Each worker is an individual whose work has contributed towards the generation of cess. There is no justification for such exclusion.”
In BJP-run Haryana, where close to a lakh workers were eventually excluded from the government’s commitment of covering 4,56,446 registered workers, including 71,043 covered under the Mukhya Mantri Parviar Samriddhi Yojana. 34, 782 workers were excluded where both husband and wife were registered construction workers.
Poonia, the labour rights activist who works with migrant workers in Rajasthan, said that tracking through Aadhar card-linked bank accounts enabled the state governments to ensure that a construction worker did not benefit from more than one cash transfer scheme initiated during the lockdown.
“Digitization is used to reduce the number of beneficiaries,” he said.
“Digitization is used to reduce the number of beneficiaries.”