Chethan Ranganath | May 2, 2019 | 14 min read
Bengaluru: Swamy (didn’t state his surname), 36, moved 130 km from Pandavapura, a town in Mandya district, to Bengaluru around five years back in search of a stable source of income and a better life for his family. Wearing a striped cotton shirt and black pants, the uneducated labourer talked about the difficulties in his life. Finding work two-three days a week is a “blessing” today, he said.
Before the Modi-government’s decision to ban Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes in November 2016, Swamy and his wife, a Class 7 dropout, earned about Rs 25,000 a month. Today, they struggle to collectively make between Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 per month. His wife works as a domestic helper, while he waits at the Kurubarahalli labour hub in Bangalore north every day in search for jobs ranging from cement plastering to sweeping and cleaning. Before demonetisation, Swamy could find work for almost 20 days a month, which has now fallen to just about 10 days.
A father of three girls, Swamy said saving money is the dream but isn’t an option right now. He dreams about his children receiving quality education at a “good convent school”. Currently, his older two daughters receive free education at the Siddaganga Education Trust. “Since all three of my children are girls, it is mandatory to save money for their future use,” he said. An added worry is his youngest daughter, who is physically challenged. Since she requires constant care, either parent is required to stay home while the other goes out for work. This results in them losing a day’s worth of pay. Her health expenses are an additional source of worry for both husband and wife.
Swamy and his family live in a 1 BHK house in JC Nagar, about 2-3 km from the labour hub, paying Rs 3,500 as rent. On most occasions, he walks up and down from the hub. On good days, before demonetisation, Swamy would earn about Rs 600 a day. Today, he reaches the hub early morning, around 7-8 am and often waits till 12:30 pm to find a job. On the days that he does find work, he earns between Rs 350-Rs 400. Swamy said his income has “nose-dived” after demonetisation.
This sentiment has been echoed by several other daily wage labourers at the Kurubarahalli labour hub.
The hub sees about 1000-1500 labourers each day. Workers gathered around complained that the numbers have increased after demonetisation, while jobs and wages have fallen. They generally find work in construction, painting, plumbing, brick lifting, pothole and road repairs, masonry and others. While the skilled or experienced workers find it comparatively easier to find a job, it is the unskilled and newcomers that face a challenge daily. Labour contractors generally come on two-wheelers or in auto rickshaws to pick up workers. The ones they’re familiar with or are skilled, are often picked first, while the remaining go home empty-handed. Based on workers’ accounts, the skilled and experienced ones get minimum Rs 150 more than their counterparts.
At around 7:30 am, the Kurubarahalli labour hub starts filling up. The area is often congested due to narrow walkways and roads that leads to heavy traffic. Several vegetable shops, provision stores and darshinis (mess-like hotels) are found in the area. The crowd starts fading by 12 pm and clears out by 2 pm, returning home without a day’s wage. The daily wage for women is around Rs 300 and Rs 600 for men. Though this is the general standard, workers claim they most often do not receive this amount. The discrepancy in pay between men and women is due to the different jobs offered: work like masonry, cement plastering, painting and carpentry is specifically offered to men, while women are hired generally as helpers, for mixing concrete, moving bricks etc.
D Rajashekhar, PhD, professor of economics at the Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru, estimates urban areas in Karnataka host around 30-40 lakh workers only from the construction sector. A study carried out by Venkataramanappa, PhD and assistant professor at Bangalore University in 2016 on unorganised workers in the city, stated Bengaluru’s construction sector hosts a “conservative” five lakh construction workers, including those from neighbouring areas like Hosur, Dharmapuri, Bidar and Gulbarga, Tumkur, Ramnagar, Kolar among others. Metro rail construction in the city has also pulled in daily wage labourers from neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu.
Appanna, Karnataka general secretary of the All India Central Council Trade Union, estimated that the city itself hosts about eight to ten lakh construction labourers.
This is the eighth of an 11-part series (you can read the first part here, second here, third here, fourth here, fifth here, sixth here and seventh here), reported from nationwide labour hubs--places where unskilled and semi-skilled workers gather to seek contract jobs--to track employment in India’s informal sector. This sector, which absorbs the country’s mass of illiterate, semi-educated and qualified-but-jobless people, employs 92% of India’s workforce, according to a 2016 International Labour Organization study that used government data.
By delving into the lives and hopes of informal workers, this series provides a reported perspective to ongoing national controversies over job losses after demonetisation and GST. The number of jobs declined by a third over four years to 2018, according to a survey by the All India Manufacturers’ Organisation, which polled 34,700 of its 300,000 member-units. In 2018 alone, 11 million jobs were lost, mostly in the unorganised rural sector, according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy(CMIE), a consultancy.
The Congress won Karnataka in 2013 with a majority of 122 out of 224 seats. A tense moment of uncertainty unfolded in May 2018 when the fight between the BJP and Congress resulted in a hung assembly. The BJP won 104 seats out of 224--the single largest party--while the Congress won 80. The Janata Dal (Secular) (JDS) emerged as the dark horse with 37 seats and both leading parties scrambled for an alliance.
The BJP, in its manifesto, promised increasing farmer welfare in the state--since Karnataka is one of five states in the country to account for 89.5% of total farmer suicides according to an NCRB 2019 report--and several promises to empower the youth, including an improvement in job creation, despite the state having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. The Congress promised the creation of 15-20 lakh jobs per year for the youth in its manifesto, farmer empowerment and agricultural reforms, among others. JD(S)’ promises were for the creation of jobs for 10 lakh families.
The Congress and JD(S) alliance, under a ‘Compete with China’ scheme, aim to create nine lakh manufacturing jobs.
According to a report by the Department of Skill Development, Entrepreneurship and Livelihood, Government of Karnataka from 2016, the informal sector in the state employs about 74.01% of the state’s workforce, while the formal sector employs 23.06%. This estimate has been given for workers between the age group of 16-35. Moreover, the report stated that as of 2011-12, only 7% of the entire workforce received skill training, while 9.4% of the youth received skill training. The National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) estimated that the demand and supply for skilled labour in Karnataka is a mismatch. By 2022, there will be a shortage of 7.12 lakh skilled persons in the state. The Karnataka Knowledge Commission stated that construction--along with agriculture and industries--is one of the top three sectors in the state to demand and employ skilled workers. Almost 7% of the total workforce, works in construction, with agriculture being the highest at 55.7%.
According to a study by the NSDC from 2013, the state hosts about 1,507 public and private ITIs (Industrial Training Institutes) and 289 polytechnic institutes. However, the enrolment capacity is just at 68.9%. Bengaluru Rural has 16 ITIs and one polytechnic institute, while Bengaluru Urban--hosting one of Asia’s largest industrial clusters with more than 5000 MSMEs--has 60 polytechnics and 83 ITIs.
Since various industries in the state are increasingly demand skilled labour, the Skill Development, Entrepreneurship and Livelihood Department was set up in May 2017. It launched the Chief Minister’s Kaushalya Karnatak Yojane to train 5 lakh youth every year, particularly school dropouts with the ability to work in MSMEs.
Similarly, in September 2014, the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana was launched under the Ministry of Rural Development. This scheme, tasked with increasing income of rural youth and catering to their dreams, had a target of training 9,88,014, of which 6,95,283 have been trained in skills across various industries. However, only almost half, 3,24,956 of the trained have been certified.
Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Act was implemented in Karnataka in 2006 for the welfare of construction labourers in the unorganised sector. Under this board, registered members are eligible for educational grants for their children, toolboxes, subsidies to build their own homes, medical assistance and insurance for the worker and their dependents and pension, among others. Membership under the BOCW would cost a worker Rs 25 as an initial deposit and Rs 10 as monthly payment thereon. The exact number of labourers who have registered/benefitted from this scheme could not be ascertained.
While skill training programmes are plenty, disbursement of benefits towards specific target groups is a challenge.
Swamy knew nothing of these schemes. “Who can be bothered with enrolling in these schemes?” he retorted.. Less than 20% of the entire worker population receives welfare benefits and skill training, said Appanna.
In the years preceding demonetisation, most workers told us that they would get jobs quite easily. “Now it is a nightmare,” said a worker who did not wish to be named. “Demonetisation posed a serious threat to our livelihood. But the demand for skilled labour is high.”
At the Kurubarahalli labour hub, most workers echoed support for the Congress, believing that the job would improve if the party is voted to power in the 2019 general elections. A few like Manjunath were “deeply unhappy” with demonetisation and GST but were satisfied with the manner in which the government dealt with the Doklam and Balakot incidents.
Umesh, 52, hails from Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh
Fifty-two-year-old Umesh, (he didn’t reveal his surname), wearing a knock-off Mercedez Benz cap, believes both “destiny” and demonetisation have led to this current job crisis. Wearing an old cotton pant and a blue, striped cotton shirt, the uneducated labourer pointed towards his eye and said he thinks he has some “ailment” or a “cataract”, that prevents him from getting hired for cement mixing, brick lifting and other jobs.
Originally from Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, his family migrated to Bengaluru before he was born. Today he lives in a 1BHK house with his wife and two school-going children in JC Nagar Kurubarahalli, about 2 km from the labour hub. While his house has access to basic amenities like water and electricity, the former’s supply is irregular and to find some, they’re forced to travel long distances.
Umesh said he earns between Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 per month, finding work only three to four days a week. Before demonetisation, he earned Rs 600 or more for a day’s work. Today, he makes around Rs 400. On days when he is “lucky”, he can find work through a familiar labour contractor. His wife works as a domestic helper in a couple of houses earning Rs 1,500-Rs 2,000 per house. Collectively, they earn about Rs 20,000 a month.
Unhappy with his job situation, Umesh consoles himself saying, “Everything is gained from earlier birth. Who knows what paap (sin) I committed then.”
A report from 2013 by the National Skill Development Corporation stated Karnataka’s construction sector contributes to about 9% of the state’s GDSP, with a majority of youth looking for jobs in it. However, real estate, construction and sales of property reduced drastically post demonetisation.
Nizar (refused to disclose his surname), 46, works as a supervisor at a brick factory. He said daily wage workers at his factory suffered due to not just demonetisation, but GST as well. The company faced a “huge drop” in sales following the implementation of GST and they struggled to breakeven. Not only did he, as a senior employee, not receive a salary raise since demonetisation, but they were unable to increase the daily wage of their workers. Due to this, three out of eight workers left in search of higher wages and hiring new workers has been a difficulty at low wages.
Ranganath Kalappagowda, a 48-year-old mechanical engineer, owns a small construction company in Devanahalli on the outskirts of Bengaluru. He claimed that the noteban broke the city’s construction sector, which he was directly impacted by as well; but the direct heat was faced by his unorganised sector workers. He did not have the cash to pay his daily wage workers--both skilled and unskilled--and had to cut down the workforce from 20 to 14 labourers to plug holes in his sinking ship. As compared to earlier, when he would pay around Rs 15,000-Rs 20,000 per month to a daily wage worker, today he can afford to pay only around Rs 10,000 a month, which can even go lower in the case of unskilled workers.
Woes of female daily workers
At Bengaluru’s labour hubs, life throws an extra set of challenges at the female daily wage labourers.
Dressed in a bottle green saree, her forehead peppered with sindoor (vermillion), Shivagangamma, a labourer in her early 30s, irritably talked about her frustration at her husband’s behaviour.
Not only did demonetisation impact their monthly income and overall finances, but it also pushed her husband towards alcohol as a coping mechanism. Despite earning less than Rs 10,000 a month, her husband spends at least Rs 200 a day on alcohol, effectively blowing away around Rs 6000 a month. This frivolous expenditure pushed her to step outside the house and take up two jobs.
By 5 am, daily, she goes to houses in nearby localities to work as a domestic helper, earning around Rs 4,000 a month. After finishing work by 8 am, she goes to the labour hub by 10 am in search of a job. Shivagangamma generally works as a helper, lifting bricks, filling potholes and similar jobs. For this, she earns around Rs 300 a day.
When asked about the whereabouts of her husband, in an offhand manner, she shrugged and said, “He must sleeping soundly after heavy drinking.”
Shivagangamma pays Rs 3,000 for a 1BHK house in Kamala Nagar, about 2 km from the Kurubarahalli labour hub. Her house gets drinking water once in two days and she pays Rs 300 for electricity every month. Her two children study in a government school.
Her husband earns around Rs 10,000 a month, at Rs 600 a day for work in cement plastering, carpentry and plumbing. He finds work for only 10-12 days a month, as compared to earlier when he would find for 20 days at Rs 700-Rs 800 a day. Most workers at the hub would find on average 20-25 days of work a month before demonetisation.
Nagamma, a labourer in her late 30s, has similar complaints as Shivagangamma. Her tired face and worry lines were a direct contrast to her bright yellow saree, pink blouse and green bangles on each hand.
She lamented that her husband’s alcoholism sometimes prevents labour contractors from hiring him. Her husband earns about Rs 500-Rs 600 a day, out of which Rs 200 or more he spends on alcohol. This, on top of his struggles of finding work for just about 10-12 days a month. Labour contractors are wary of hiring “drunkards”, she said.
Nagamma lives with her husband and two children in JC Nagar, about 2 km walking distance from the labour hub where she generally works as a helper with brick lifting or cement mixing. Before demonetisation, she said finding 20 days work a month was a given, now it has come down to 10 days a month at about Rs 300 a day. Nagamma makes about Rs 3,000-Rs 4,000 monthly, while her husband makes less than Rs 10,000.
Rajashekhar said working conditions for daily wage labourers is “pathetic”. Not only do they not have access to basic facilities like drinking water or toilets, but female labourers have an added burden of facing emotional and sexual abuse as well.
A female labourer, requesting anonymity, said she has faced sexual abuse on several occasions, but “pacifies” herself with the “brunt” of her work since there is nobody else to bring home the bread.
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