As the New India Rises, So Do Slums Of Laborers

Millions of laborers have left poor and remote areas to build the new India in emerging suburbs of New Delhi, India's capital. But the work sites they inhabit are often dangerous environments.Washington Post's Emily Wax reports. Video by Raymond Thibodeaux
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 5, 2008

GURGAON, India -- Rubbing the cement dust from her eyes, Gudiya, a 10-year-old girl with braids and a torn frilly dress, weaved her way through a column of women in tattered cotton saris hauling bricks on their heads. She slipped into a labyrinth of ramshackle shelters in this New Delhi suburb, her tiny legs sprinting over stacks of 10-foot-long steel rods.

It was dusk, and the air was heavy with the fog of cooking fires. Gudiya, whose name means doll in Hindi, boiled a pot of lentils for her family on what passes here for a stove -- a pile of kindling surrounded by rocks.

That's because this is Gudiya's home: a construction site.

Gudiya has grown used to being shuttled from one such site to another. Two years ago, her parents gave up farming for jobs spawned by New Delhi's construction bonanza. They have helped build shopping malls, houses and highways, aspiring to one day be part of a new, more prosperous India.

But with every glass-and-steel skyscraper and high-tech call center that goes up, a slum also rises. And efforts to demolish those slums have only pushed thousands of migrant worker families like Gudiya's to squat in the very structures they are building, hanging their laundry on clotheslines strung between support beams.

"I don't always like it here. My parents are always working, and it's lonely," Gudiya said, sitting on a mound of earth dug up to make way for a condominium and shopping complex near her family's shanty.

Her mother, Vimal, 35, stared at the ground. "We were hoping that if we came here, things would be easier than in the village," she said. "At least here we can get work."

Gudiya and her parents are among an estimated 40 million people, mainly unskilled porters, bricklayers and other low-caste laborers, who have left poor and remote areas to build the new India in emerging towns such as Gurgaon, just outside India's capital. By contrast, an estimated 2 million people work in software jobs. The construction industry is one of India's largest employers, and it is growing at a rate of 15 percent a year.

The work sites are often dangerous. India has the world's highest accident rate among construction workers, according to a recent study by the International Labor Organization that cited one survey by a local aid group showing that 165 out of every 1,000 workers are injured on the job.

Anil Swarup, director of labor and welfare at the Ministry of Labor and Employment in New Delhi, has said the government is "very concerned about the accidents that are taking place, and we are looking into ways to do better." Builders associations also say they are improving conditions.

Still, workers rarely wear helmets, and work sites often lack fire extinguishers or first-aid kits. In India, multistory buildings are demolished not with explosives or wrecking balls, but by dozens of laborers with pickaxes and sledgehammers. Since most families live on-site, children and toddlers often wander unsupervised amid the rubble and scaffolding, raising accident rates, labor rights groups say.

In the absence of clean drinking water and flush latrines, cholera and other diseases spread quickly, and many people suffer hacking coughs caused by inhaled paint fumes and cement particles. About 70 percent of the children at construction sites suffer from malnutrition, compared with the national average of 21 percent, according to a study last year by Mobile Creches, a nonprofit group that provides day care and schooling for an estimated 1,800 children at 24 construction sites in New Delhi.

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