Ace photographer Samar Jodha captures the silent testimonials of the workers who have seen the most inhuman face of the CWG
TEXT BY Rishi Majumder
THE SQUALOR around Shivaji Stadium fills you with rage that you cannot photograph. Rage at the stench of excreta, which hits you first from the common toilets near a CWG worker’s shanty. At the state of this shanty — built out of galvanised iron sheets and tarpaulin. By noon, these sheets burn your fingertips when you touch them. They make the shanty an oven for those within.
Akbar Sheikh is within. He is a cook, and this shanty is his kitchen. Sheikh, now 50, first came to Delhi during the 1982 Asian Games as a 22-year-old construction worker. Now he accompanies 30-odd brick layers from his home district of Murshidabad in West Bengal. He sifts insects off rice leftovers as photojournalist Samar Jodha asks him for a picture. “I got paid more for the Asian Games than for the CWG,” says Sheikh. The workers in Sheikh’s gang, like most of the nearly two lakh labourers employed by the CWG, make Rs.100 a day, when their statutory minimum wage is Rs. 203. The amount spent on the most expensive CWG ever has exceeded Rs. 30,000 crore and will go up further. More Rage. Mosquitoes, in the time of dengue, flit in from open drains. Water from the toilets seeps in near where a sack of potatoes lies. Sheikh is not embarrassed by Samar shooting all this. He thinks it’s normal. Five of his companions have fallen ill. They have been taken to government doctors who have offered them a pill they give everyone: a likely placebo. Three of these five are not recovering, and might have to be laid off. Rage persists.
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Outside the hut is a clear view of a giant pit where the foundations of a new stadium structure are being laid. Inside the pit are hundreds of workers, some with helmets, most without. Some swing at dizzying heights without a safety belt. The law makes helmets, boots and gloves and safety accessories mandatory and free. A Delhi High Court monitoring committee found most workers were charged between Rs.300 and Rs. 800 for boots on the site. While the official figure for those who have died during the CWG construction is 42, a source puts the actual figure at “1,000 and counting”. Some died of disease, others due to accidents at work. Two children who appear to be 12 do wear helmets. When asked their names they stutter. Samar raises his camera. Age? They run away. Photographs of CWG child labourers have been published recently. Reports document a two-year-old child as one of the ‘workers’ killed in a CWG accident. Rage grows.
Why? Isn’t this the usual state of construction workers, and the poor in India? ‘National prestige’ is a phrase most used in conjunction with the CWG online. However they go, the games will not be a matter of national prestige. Because the crimes committed against the workers who built the games is only one face of the inhumanity of the CWG. The games have two more such faces — its past and future, which have nothing to do with how they are executed finally.
Face Two. The past. Before the CWG, authorities kicked out over one lakh homeless — more than a third of the city’s homeless — from night shelters, and demolished hundreds of homes. Two fast-track mobile beggar courts have been added, to sentence beggars to as many as three years of prison. Bamboo clusters are being planted to hide slums from tourists.
Some of the homes demolished were occupied by CWG workers. The message given by the authorities responsible — the CPWD, NDMC, MCD, DDA, Delhi state PWD, Delhi University, and the organising committee of the games — is clear: the poor and homeless are a matter of national shame. The CWG workers are poor and homeless. The games are not for them.
And neither are the laws. Laws like the Payment of Wages Act, the Minimum Wages Act, the Contract Labour Act, the Equal Remuneration Act, the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act and the Building and Other Construction Workers Act. According to the high court monitoring committee’s report, these legislations have been flouted blindly. They have been flouted by contractors who comprise the richest companies in India. Larsen & Toubro. Emaar MGF. Shapoorji Pallonji. A few names that have paid a labourer less than half his minimum wage. How? Many labourers have not been registered so they cannot claim benefits under the law. A People’s Union of Democratic Rights study shows that by denying CWG workers their rightful wages, contractors saved 360 crore a year.
FACE THREE. THE FUTURE. The CWG was meant to boost sports infrastructure so that poor but deserving sportsmen could have opportunities. But the poor are a matter of national shame now. So plan is afoot to rent out the CWG structures the labourers have built for corporate and entertainment events. This is in keeping with the Asian Games tradition — Indira Gandhi Stadium is now a venue for ‘Bollywood Nights’.
Another Asian Games story does the rounds. After the games, then MP Rajiv Gandhi wanted a bara khana (big dinner) for the construction workers in a stadium. But the workers, being migrant labour, had left the city. So officials, wanting to please the PM’S son, herded all the poor and homeless they could find in the city — to ensure a full house. A bara khana will also elude the CWG. As Samar photographs them, workers are being thrown out of the premises they have built. Guards man the entrances to stadiums, allowing neither the workers nor us to pass. Even though they have to meet their friends and relatives working inside. At the stadia, we are told the workers are at work. At the labour camp, we are told they are resting. A Sarojini Nagar labour camp, built on a garbage dump, is hidden behind a high wall. Even the police station a few blocks away doesn’t know of its existence. This despite all the crimes migrant labour is accused of.
Some bricks from this wall could have been used for the camp, which is part GI sheets and tarpaulin. Open drains. Leaking toilets. Mosquitoes. Rage returns. Here sits Chintadevi Mani, 32, and her husband and son. They have missed work for a week. Fever. Bodyaches. Symptoms consistent with dengue. They’ve been given the same pill Sheikh spoke about. If they don’t recover, they may be sent back. Before the opening ceremony of the CWG — with a Rs. 40 crore imported balloon. And imported gas.
With inputs from Samrat Chakrabarti