The hands that build the city

Darr toh lagta hai sahab, par majboori hai isliye karna padta hai (Of course, there is fear, but I have no choice but to do this work),” says Amarjeet Kumar, 35, as he puts down his blue helmet on a table and sips tea at a makeshift stall in Sector 65 near Golf Course Extension Road in Gurgaon. Several under-construction buildings and skyscrapers — including luxury condominiums and shopping complexes — loom over the stall in the Millennium City’s evolving skyline.

Kumar, a construction worker hailing from Patna, has just descended for a 10-minute break from a similar building, 36-storey high, where he does ‘shuttering’ work. The brochure of the project he is working on promises ‘an elevated lifestyle experience’ for buyers.

Kumar says he is unaware of the mishap at a construction site in Sector 77 a few days ago, where four labourers died and one was injured after falling off the 17th floor of a residential project while dismantling a crane. But, he is not surprised. “Harr ek-do mahine mein ek haadsa hota hai (Every month or so, there is an incident like this),” he says.

Every time he goes up, he is aware of the “risk”. “Shuttering involves being suspended on a platform at a height. One can slip, a hook may give away, a rope may break….”

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He recalls an incident from 2019 when he was deployed at a construction site in Greater Noida. “We were perched on an iron platform on the 19th floor, when a fellow worker fell to his death… At that time, one thinks of one’s family. Who will take care of them if I suffer such fate?”

But mostly, he avoids dwelling on it, Kumar says. “It is up to fate.”

It was in 2013 that Kumar left home in a village in Patna to find work, and got onto a train to Delhi. After several odd jobs, including as a helper at a firm which paid him

Rs 95 a day, he landed carpentry work with the help of a friend at a construction site.

A decade on, he has worked at several construction sites in Noida, Delhi and Gurgaon. “The tallest building in our village was a three-storey-high water tank. I had never climbed it. Now, I work at buildings that are over 100 metres high,” he smiles.

Kumar gets paid Rs 1,000 a day for a shift that stretches 12 hours, and is grateful that there is work on most days of the month. He still shudders thinking of peak Covid, when all construction came to a halt and he had to walk home, remaining without work for months. Of his earnings, he sends half home to his family — his wife, and three children, between the ages of 3 and 7.

Kumar has also found a family of sorts here in Gurgaon, of others like him, from mostly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. At break time, they emerge carrying blue and yellow helmets and tiffins, from buildings all around.

Most of them live within walking distance from the construction sites, earning

Rs 400 to Rs 1,000 a day depending on the nature of skill involved. The contractors who hire them put them up in tin-roofed shanties, often 30 to a shed. They move site to site, as per work, provided the basics of three meals a day, water and power, visiting home at most twice a year.

Ranjit Kumar, 19, from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh, lives at a labour camp near Sector 50, and does scaffolding work. “The roof leaks when it rains, but at least there is bed and food here,” he says.

Ravikant Kumar, 27, of Supaul district in Bihar, comments on the irony. “Hum logon ke liye bada ghar banate hain, par hamara pucca ghar nahin (We build these grand houses for people, but we do not have a permanent house of our own).”

At the tea stall, pointing to an upcoming mall nearby, Manzar Alam (19) talks about two workers who died there in June after they fell off the 19th floor. They must not have been provided a safety harness, he says. “A belt would have saved them.”

Alam, who is from Bhais Bandha village in Katihar, Bihar, comes from a farming family. Forced to move out as “there is no work in the village”, he worked initially as a helper .

Now into his sixth month in the construction job, Alam still remembers clearly the first time he went up a high-rise. “My feet were trembling. We had been given gloves, boots, harness belt, a jacket and a helmet. The contractor also gives training, but a mishap can occur at any time. In summer months, when the heat is unbearable, often labourers do not wear the safety equipment as it is cumbersome to work with.”

Workers say while big contractors provide safety equipment, including safety nets, the enforcement of laws at smaller sites is lax.

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In the aftermath of the recent deaths, Gurgaon Deputy Commissioner Nishant Yadav announced a four-member committee under a sub-divisional magistrate to probe the incident, apart from compensation for the families of the deceased and injured. The district administration has ordered a safety audit of all construction sites and directed construction firms to adhere to safety norms.

The Haryana Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Service) Rules, 2005, mandates that in every establishment where 500 or more workers are ordinarily employed, a safety committee shall be constituted to identify probable causes of accidents and unsafe practices, and suggest measures to improve welfare amenities. The rules also require safety officers to conduct inspections and investigate all fatal accidents.

Gufran Ahmed, who worked as a scaffolder at the same site, says things will return to “normal” soon. “At sites, due to haste in completing work and the costs involved, safety measures are ignored. If workers complain, they are simply asked to quit,” he says.


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