NEW DELHI — On 18 April 2020, the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Gujarat said that it would transfer Rs 1,000 into the bank accounts of 6,38,000 registered construction workers as emergency cash assistance amid the coronavirus lockdown in India.
Yet three months after the announcement, 40% of these workers are yet to receive this meagre assistance. The news was first reported in Nav Gujarat Samay, a Gujarati news publication.
“We have a data problem,” B.M. Prajapati, Member Secretary of Gujarat’s Building and Other Construction Workers Board (BOCW), the state body that is giving the funds, told HuffPost India. “We are doing our best to get the correct data.”
Prajapati said the government had initially tried to transfer the money to 4.5 lakh out of the total 6.38 lakh registered workers. Only 3.68 lakh transactions were successful. As a consequence, 2.7 lakh registered construction workers are yet to receive emergency cash assistance promised in April this year.
The most common reason for failed transactions was because the bank account numbers of the construction workers were not linked to their Aadhar card, a unique biometric identification number issued by the Government of India. A few transactions failed because the registered construction workers were either dead or had migrated.
Gujarat’s failure is the most recent example of how the Indian government’s much-ballyhooed claims of digitising welfare benefits have left hundreds of thousands of India’s most vulnerable citizens without a safety net. Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much touted Digital India campaign, the situation of bookkeeping in some of the states and UTs was so appalling that governments had to give up on Direct Benefit Transfers and resort to handing out cash.
“Gujarat has to be the worst in the treatment of its construction workers,” Vipul Pandya, General Secretary of the Ahmedabad-based Bandjkham Mazdoor Sangathan, a trade union, told HuffPost India.
“The government promised 1,000 rupees three months ago, but they have made it so hard for workers to even get this small amount,” he said. “What Model Gujarat are they talking about?”
Following a central government advisory asking state governments to dip into the BOCW funds to pay coronavirus relief to construction workers in March, HuffPost India reported on how these state boards were sitting on hundreds of crores meant for their welfare schemes, while doing a terrible job of registering workers, renewing their membership, and keeping track of their bank account numbers.
In May, the Modi government said its Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package to ameliorate the economic devastation caused by India’s coronavirus lockdown was 10% of India’s GDP, but experts put the fiscal spending at less than 1%.
In a letter addressed to the Member Secretary of the Gujarat BOCW in July, three trade unions for unorganised workers in the state - Bandhkam Majur Sangathan, Bandhkam Majur Vikas Sangh and Majur Adhikar Manch - said, “We estimate that there are about 20 lakh construction workers in the state. Even 15 years after the formation of the board, only 6.38 lakh workers have been registered.”
The number of construction workers in Gujarat, according to the Union Labour Ministry, is close to 10 lakh.
In Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state, currently run by Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, the state government on 7 July issued a notification calling for constructions workers who were yet to receive emergency cash assistance to upload their documents including their identification card number issued by the BOCW when they registered, AADHAR number, bank account number, and ration card number, on a designated web portal by 17 June.
On 15 July, Pandya, the trade union leader, said that he sent a letter to the BOCW, explaining that it would be difficult if not impossible for construction workers to upload their documents within a span of 10 days and the state government should give them time till 30 August.
“For people who are not literate, for people living in tribal areas, uploading documents online is very difficult in any circumstance and impossible in such a short period of time,” he said. “Where will they find a cyber cafe?”
For some workers, Pandya said, the identification numbers which they were issued when registering with the BOCW were no longer valid and they had to visit their local BOCW office in order to get the new “computerized” number before they could upload their documents.
“A daily wage labourer cannot spend a day standing in line for an identification number,” he said. “They are also sending the identification numbers by post, but in tribal areas, people often don’t get post.”
Pandya said the government also made calls to construction workers to get their bank account numbers. “But this is such nonsense. Who is comfortable giving their bank account information to a stranger over the phone,” he said.
HuffPost India had earlier reported on the Gujarat government’s decision to disburse the emergency cash funds to registered constructions per ration card holder and not to each registered worker.
In its 18 July report citing information given by BOCW member secretary Prajapati, Nav Gujarat Samay newspaper reported that only 12,000 workers had uploaded their documents in the ten days since the notification was issued on 7 July.
The report also said the time for submitting documents had been extended till 30 July.
But that still not enough time, said Pandya.
“That money is for the workers,” he said. “What is this attitude the government has? They have these hoardings that say - ‘government of Vijay Rupani, a sensitive government.’ But I don’t see any sensitivity.”