CHANDIGARH, Punjab: Last month, 49-year-old construction worker Ranjit Kaur rushed to the Thuhi village Chaupal in Patiala district of Punjab to meet the ‘Bank Mitras’ who had come to deliver the cash payment announced by the Punjab government as one-time financial assistance to all the registered construction workers in the state.
While some of the assembled workers received the cash, which was paid in two equal installments of Rs 3,000 each in the months of April and May, Kaur and many other registered workers did not receive the money. When she asked, the bank Mitras told her that the money had not been credited to their accounts.
While Punjab made efforts like these to help struggling workers during the punitive national lockdown that left them unemployed, hundreds of people have not received the crucial financial aid because of reasons including fake registration scams and inefficiency of government systems.
So far, the government has paid out around Rs172 crore to over 2.86 lakh beneficiaries by crediting Rs 6,000 directly into their account. But it’s now unsure how much has actually reached the workers.
The delay in payment has meant that workers across industries such as agriculture, leather, and woolen garments have been forced by hunger to undertake the long, laborious journeys to their hometowns.
Also, following up on a report in The Tribune, HuffPost India confirmed that hundreds of workers registered by the CSC e-Governance Services India Ltd, a Special Purpose Vehicle of the Union government which is also registering workers simultaneously for the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-Dhan (PM-SYM) scheme were listed against a single mobile number, sometimes without the phone owner’s knowledge.
PM-SYM aims to provide an assured monthly pension of Rs. 3,000 from the age of 60 years to workers like street vendors, rickshaw pullers, construction workers, rag pickers, agricultural workers, beedi workers, handloom, leather, and in numerous other similar occupations on a monthly contribution of a small affordable amount during their working age.
The lapse has also brought forward the failures of the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Boards (BOCW), constituted in each state, which was formed to safeguard and ensure the rehabilitation of workers by collecting cess through various government services.
The fake registration problem
The Tribune reported earlier this month that Punjab’s Labour Department has initiated an inquiry after allegations of fake registration of construction workers surfaced. A large number of workers, especially those enrolled in the border districts of Ferozpur and Fazilka, were found to be registered for the scheme from a single mobile number.
Vijay Kumar Janjua, Additional Chief Secretary, Labour, told HuffPost India that the government has begun tele-verification of the beneficiaries.
On making random calls from the list, some phone numbers were found switched off and those who answered the call told HuffPost India that they are unaware about the whereabouts of many workers who had migrated to other cities in search of jobs.
Dr Kulwant Singh Kamal from Zira, whose contact number was listed against 164 workers, said that he was a social activist and got the workers registered under his phone number as they were unable to read the messages and OTP sent to them in English.
“I had shared the addresses and contact numbers of over 125 people whose names were listed against my contact number but I am not sure how many of them will be traceable as the majority of them have gone back to their native villages. Also, there are over 80 such workers in my area who, despite being registered with the BOCW, did not receive the financial aid so far,” said Dr. Kamal.
Another person, who introduced himself as Rana Jindal, working for a builders and construction workers society at Fazilka, said that he also got over 168 workers registered for the scheme.
“I am not aware of their whereabouts now as they keep on moving from one place to another in search of jobs,” said Rana.
He also refused to divulge further details and said that he is yet to receive any verification call from the labour department.
Interestingly, 12 workers were registered against the phone number of Afsana Khatoon from Pinjore in Haryana. Khatoon’s husband Hasamuddin Ansari is in the army and is presently posted in Assam. Speaking to HuffPost India, over the phone, a shocked Ansari said that the couple has never got any worker registered with the Punjab government.
Calling it sheer negligence, Vijay Walia, a labour activist from Punjab says that BOCW disbursed the amount without verifying workers’ accounts or claims.
“The government seemed to have acted in a haste. Many of the registered workers had either left the state during Corona lockdown and many workers who could not get their registration renewed were also left out in the scheme,” said Walia.
Over 70,000 registrations in days
A week after the disbursement of the two instalments in April and May this year, the labour department received over 70,000 more registrations in a single week. Finding anomalies in the registration process, where over 150 people were registered on a single mobile number, BOCW banned CSC from doing further registrations.
According to additional chief secretary Janjua, registration through CSC was put on hold after the labour department received numerous complaints pertaining to Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs) running the CSC in rural areas charging exorbitant amounts from the beneficiaries.
“While the registration fee was only Rs 1, they were charging up to Rs 200 from them. The CSC employees were even spreading rumours that every villager who will get registered as a construction worker will get the grant released by the state government. Now we have asked the workers to get registered at the Seva Kendras,” said Janjua who also said that labour inspectors were receiving registration alerts even at midnight.
Sources at the department told HuffPost India that the CSCs enrolled farmers, street vendors and even shopkeepers as construction workers after charging anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 2000 from them.
Anomalies in the BOCW
Amid these controversies, activists are alleging that the BOCW itself has fundamental issues. Walia has filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, claiming that theconstitution of the board was not done as per the BOCW act.
“The constitution of the board violatessection 18 of the act as, instead of the building workers, it has included a professor, a lawyer and three union leaders as its members,” said Walia.
He also added that while the Supreme Court has directed the states to hold meetings every two months, the BOCW in Punjab held its last meeting in November 2017.
Walia also alleged that government contractors are also violating a 2006 Supreme Court order by hiring unregistered workers.
“Also, the welfare cess which is being calculated against the constructed area is mostly collected from the government contractors and not from private builders,” he said.
When asked, Janjua said that the state government is making the utmost efforts to ensure registration of every construction worker who arrives in the state but the majority of them do not inform the government and began working directly after finding a job.
“It is important for every worker to get registered with the respective state government so he could receive immediate support in a situation like COVID 19. Also, they were entitled to many other benefits like health care and other welfare schemes,” said Janjua.