POLITICS
18/09/2020 7:54 AM IST | Updated 18/09/2020 11:43 AM IST

Data Debacle Means Modi Govt Had No Idea How Many Construction Workers Needed Help In Lockdown

Wide-ranging discrepancies in official numbers are indicative of the Modi government's emphasis on managing the public narrative rather than the fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters
Migrant workers walk towards a bus station in Ghaziabad on 29 March, 2020,  during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of the coronavirus in India. 

In a Parliament session in which the Modi government has been pilloried for claiming it has no data on the human cost of the Prime Minister’s unplanned and poorly executed national lockdown, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ministers have tom-tommed one figure: Rs 5,000 crores disbursed to millions of construction workers from the construction workers welfare cess fund.

Yet, a HuffPost India analysis of successive state and central government reports, audits, and interviews with state-level officials, indicates the Modi government has little idea of the actual number of construction workers in India.

HuffPost India found significant discrepancies in the construction workers data maintained by the Union Labour Ministry, and published in a document titled the Mission Mode Project for Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Advisory Guidelines, sent by Union Labour Secretary Heeralal Samariya to all Chief Secretaries in an email dated 14 July.

If the numbers are to be believed, the number of registered construction workers in Madhya Pradesh, for instance, dropped by 60% in nine months from November 2019 to July 2020; while in Telangana, the number of active construction workers (registered construction workers who renew their membership in order to avail welfare benefits) reported in July 2020 was 364% higher than the number of registered construction workers.

Meanwhile, in a third category of states such as Assam, the numbers clearly appear to be outdated: In Assam, the number of registered construction workers has remained exactly the same from November 2019 to July 2020 at 2,48,871; but the number of active workers 2,70,000 were higher than the total registered workers. In West Bengal, the government has reported the same number of registered construction workers in September 2018 and July 2020. 

Such wide-ranging discrepancies have real-world implications for hundreds of thousands of India’s most vulnerable workers: At present, it is impossible to assess if the money sanctioned for the welfare of construction workers was too little, too much, or even reaching the right people. Further, as HuffPost India has previously reported, several states have struggled to identify construction workers and transfer the funds to their accounts.

This confusion around numbers is visible in public statements by the Modi government, and indicative of the administration’s emphasis on managing the public narrative rather than managing India’s raging coronavirus crisis and its fallout. 

On Wednesday, September 16, Union Labour Minister Santosh Gangwar claimed Rs 5,000 crore was released to two crore migrant workers in a PIB press release. On the same day, Minister Gangwar toldRajya Sabha that Rs 5,000 crore was released to 1.83 crore workers, a shortfall of 17 lakh workers (9.5%). 

In May, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed that Rs 3,950 crores had been transferred to 22 million or 2.2 crore construction workers during the lockdown.

Meanwhile, the Mission Mode Project Guidelines, the document that the Union Labour Ministry sent to all states and UTs on 14 July, claims the Rs 5,000 crore was intended for 1.8 crore workers. This is a shortfall of 39.84 lakh workers —  18.10% less than what the Finance Minister announced.  

“It is false and fabricated data,” said Subhash Bhatnagar, coordinator of the National Campaign Committee for Construction Workers, a platform of trade unions that had drafted the first social welfare legislation for unorganised workers that was eventually passed in the 1990s.  

G.K. Karanth, a retired professor of sociology at the Bengaluru-based Institute of Social and Economic Change, and a former director of the Karnataka State Labour Institute, said he wasn’t surprised by these discrepancies as the Union Labour Ministry did not collect the latest data from the state governments in a timely manner, and that state governments did not respond to its queries immediately. 

“That is how you find the three kinds of mismatch that you are talking about — the data being the same data as the previous year, the data being much lower than the previous year or the data being fictional,” said Karanth. “I doubt if the central government has consulted the respective states for the data.” 

HuffPost India sent a detailed questionnaire to the Union Labour Ministry on September 8; but the ministry did not respond.

The Mission Mode data 

HuffPost India arrived at this analysis by comparing figures submitted by the Union Labour Ministry to Lok Sabha from September 2018 to February 2020 with the figures included in the Mission Mode Project Guidelines sent by Union Labour Secretary Heeralal Samariya to all Chief Secretaries on 14 July, and the latest data shared by state officials. 

The Mission Mode Project Guidelines urged states to register all construction workers in their states ― “all left-out 1.5 crore construction workers” nationwide — in three months time — which would be October 14 this year — and also contained what is assumed to be the most up to date central database on the numbers of total construction workers in India.  

HuffPost India analysed that the Union Ministry had set the target data — i.e. total number of construction workers for all states and UTs at approximately 44% more than the registered construction workers, but does not provide an explanation for this uniform calculation. Furthermore, if there are errors in the number of registered construction workers to begin with, labour rights defenders question the accuracy of the “target” data as well.

Here is what we found:

If one is to believe the Mission Mode document, three states  — Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh — suffered a steep decline in the number of registered workers from November 2019 to July when the Union Labour Ministry sent the document to all states and UTs.

In Karnataka, the number of registered workers declined from 21,78,200  workers in November to 15,42,432 - the figure  mentioned in the Mission Mode document (a decline of 6,35,768 or 30%). In Madhya Pradesh from 30,97,889 to 12,63,005 (a decline of 18,34,884, or 60%) and in Maharashtra from 20,67,758 to 16,10,619 ( a decline of 4,57,139 or 22%).  

The office of Maharashtra Labour Commissioner Mahendra Kalyankar on 26 August told HuffPost India that the Labour Ministry’s Mission Mode document contained the wrong figures on Maharashtra, and its number of registered workers currently was more than 23 lakh, which had increased from 22.77 lakh in January. 

The labour commissioner’s office could not explain why the central government had sent out the wrong number of registered workers given that the state had reported 22.77 lakh workers to New Delhi “many times” during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The labour commissioner’s office also said that the number of renewal of registration by workers had fallen during the coronavirus lockdown, and the number of active workers till 31 March was 10,92,000 — the latest they had — was less than what the Mission Mode document reported 13,29,959.

In Karnataka, the office of Additional Chief Secretary Labour Rajkumar Khatri, said the number of registered workers were 25,34,823. Data provided by his office also showed a decline in the number of new registered workers per month from June to August — 1,47,253 (June), 69,425 (July) and 53,655 (August). 

Madhya Pradesh 

Madhya Pradesh’s data showcases the appalling situation that exists with data on registered workers. 

The Madhya Pradesh Building and Other Construction Workers’ Board (MPBOCW),

in response to HuffPost India’s email query on 3 September, said that MP has never had 30,97,889 workers — the figure the Union Ministry gave to Lok Sabha for November 2019. 

The MPBOCW put the number of registered workers at 9,16,142, but did not explain the difference of 21,81,747 workers. 

The Board did not respond to HuffPost India’s email pointing out that the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General’s) 2018 report says that number of registered workers as on 31 March 2018 was 25,87,175, and asking for an explanation for the drop to 9,16,142 workers.  

The CAG reports on Madhya Pradesh from March 2012 to March 2016 shows a steady rise of registered workers from 19.80 lakh workers to 24.82 lakh workers. 

Gujarat 

For Gujarat, the Mission Mode government data puts the figure of registered construction workers at 6,83,000 and its active workers at 6,38,000. 

Food and Civil Supply Department’s Resolution, PDS/102020/248/01, dated 18th April 2020, which HuffPost India has seen, says that 6,38,000 workers registered with the BOCW, of these who are not covered under the Mukhya Mantri Garib Kalyan Abhiyan, would get Rs 1,000 via Direct Benefit Transfer and the labour department shall prepare a list of such beneficiaries.  

It was clear that Gujarat was giving money to all registered construction workers in the state, not just the active workers who had renewed their membership.

Vipul Pandya, General Secretary of the Ahmedabad-based Bandkham Mazdoor Sangathan, said the number of active workers in the Mission Mode document was “nonsense.”

B.M. Prajapati, Gujarat BOCW member secretary, did not respond to queries about the number of active registered workers in Gujarat. 

But in August, 2020, more than a month after the Union Labour Ministry had sent out the Mission Mode document, and three months after the state announced the DBT of Rs 1,000, Gujarat BOCW member secretary B.M. Prajapati toldHuffPost India that nearly 40% of registered construction workers in Gujarat — 2.7 lakh registered construction workers — were yet to receive any money, and the state government was still trying to get their Aadhaar and bank details.

On 7 September, Pandya estimated that 1.5 lakh registered construction workers were yet to receive any money.

Zandal Singh, a 33-year-old construction worker from Madhya Pradesh working in Gujarat, said that he only submitted his Aadhar and bank details to the Gujarat BOCW on 31 August. 

“I did not know anything about how to get the welfare schemes or the money in the coronavirus lockdown before,” he said. 

Telangana 

Among the states that the Union Labour Ministry has recorded more active than registered workers, it has Telangana’s active workers as of July, 2020 at 8,30,324 and registered construction workers 2,27,810, six lakh less. 

E Gangadhar, Joint Commissioner of Labour in Telangana, described the number of registered workers in the Mission Mode document as “illogical.” 

Gangadhar said there were 15,41,797 registered workers in June and 15,80,915 in July, 2020. He said there were 8,25,000 active workers as on 21 April, 2020, with that figure crossing nine lakhs in the month of July, as per the information on Telangana BOCW Board website.

“I don’t know where they have got these figures from,” said Gangadhar, referring to the Mission Mode document. 

Veteran labour rights activist Subhash Bhatnagar said this document was the first time that the Union Labour Ministry had given the number of active construction workers, but the data was “bogus.”

“In the past, we have repeatedly asked for the number of active workers but they have never given it,” said Bhatnagar. “This active workers data is bogus. There is no proof that these are the active numbers.”

‘No missionary zeal’

In 2018, while calling for immediately strengthening the registration mechanism, the Supreme Court said the implementation of The Building and Other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Service), Act, 1996 and The Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996, the two laws that gave construction workers protections and gave the state governments the means to pay for them, “puts a Shakespearean tragedy to shame.”

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, High Courts in Delhi and Tamil Nadu and Gujarat instructed governments to activate the membership of five lakh registered, to register all unorganised manual workers, and to stop them from starving to death, respectively. 

The two BOCW laws were “stunning” pieces of legislation, but were rendered impotent by the lack of political will and “apathy” of the officers who were tasked with implementing them in the Centre and state, said Vasant Hitangi, Karnataka’s former Labour Secretary who retired in 2011. 

“There is no missionary zeal on part of the department officials or the board officials to track down these workers and register them,” said Hitangi. 

“And getting the right data in the age of information technology should take one second. The DG (Directorate General) Labour Welfare office in Delhi, can they not get the figure in half a day over phone, email or WhatsApp? Do they have to write letters?” he said. 

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