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Trapped in the trenches

Telecom companies have been very vocal in their promises to subscribers. But apparently this consideration does not extend to the vanguard — those who dig the pits to lay the lines. KATHYAYINI CHAMARAJ recounts the woes of the immigrant workers.

SHAJU JOHN

Migrant workers ... question of survival.

A SINE QUA NON for belonging to the "modern", upwardly mobile "e-generation" is to be seen using fancy electronic gizmos — the aptly named "mobile" phone, the Internet and what-have-you. The private telecom companies, which have hence attained an almost god-like status, are currently engaged in feverishly digging up the roads in all the cities to lay cables that will bestow these boons. Incidentally, if you make a call to one of these companies and are put on hold, a song in totally western cadences and alien accent sings something about the company "sharing your brightest dreams... " and "... bringing in a world of joy". There you are! Probably, being modern has something to do with being westernised?

But what of those standing in the narrow pits for laying cables, digging and lifting the earth, from pits that are often as deep as the diggers are tall and no wider than their hips? Do their dreams and their world of joy count at all? Apparently not, because they are trapped in the trenches in more ways than one. They are the cities' guest workers, migrants who have been ferried from far off States to help city-dwellers realise their dreams. But where is the companies' and city-dwellers' hospitality as hosts? The *tel and *com companies who have invited these guest workers house them mostly by the roadside, under tattered and patched plastic sheets, with the warm earth for a bed under the blazing sun. Or worse, they shelter them in black, window-less, tin sheet sheds, into which they have to crawl, and in which they cannot stand up straight. The companies have created slums in every city that they have dug the roads.

Mallesh and Suryakumari, along with their two children Swaroopa (7) and Shiva (5), hospitably spread a gunny bag for you to sit on, next to their plastic tent by the side of the road in the up-market neighbourhood of Langford Town in Bangalore. Suryakumari says that they have a loan of Rs. 20,000 back home in Andhra Pradesh and they came here dreaming of saving enough money to repay it. They were brought here by a maistry with 20 others with promises of work. They got work for one week digging trenches for a telecom company, but nothing since then. "Let alone being able to save, we are living on whatever we earned during the first week," says Suryakumari.

Srihari and his friends from Chittoor, A.P., too say they have been working for a telecom company. They all own about one or two acres of unirrigated land back home and came here because of the drought. They have been going to cities to do cable-laying work for the past several years.

Suryakumari, new to the city, says that she has to beg for drinking water, both at the place where she is housed and at the place of work. Neither the companies nor anyone else cares for her children or educates them while their mother goes to work. They have to defecate in roadside drains and bathe in the open, surreptitiously before the city wakes up. They have to furtively steal the tree-guards placed around trees to fire their stoves. And the residents scream at them for all this.

What's more, the residents heap the worst insults that one can heap on a guest. "These women engage in prostitution by night," says one. "The men watch all our movements shiftily and are responsible for all the dacoities in the neighbourhood," says another. They complain about them to every official possible, including the police. Yes, the residents do want their telephone and e-mail connections very much, at a click of their fingers. But they will not accept that it is not the workers' fault, they don't care who is responsible for their welfare; all they know is that they just don't want these uncivilised outsiders sullying their clean and up-market neighbourhoods.

The health inspectors of the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike have been giving the workers "strict warnings" to leave in 48 hours, whenever the residents complain. (But go where? To a new neighbourhood, until they too ask them to leave?) However, the inspectors wholeheartedly agree with the residents that like over-staying guests, "these are not the kind of people who will understand and go away once you ask them to leave". But have the inspectors spoken to the hi-tech companies who are employing the workers, whose duty it is to provide proper housing, toilet, drinking water, crèches to them under the Inter-State Migrant Workers' (ISMW) Act and the Contract Labour Act? Apparently not, because officials are used to attacking the symptoms and not the disease. Nor have they spoken to the Regional Labour Commissioner (Central), whose duty it is to enforce the Acts in the telecom sector, because officials are not used to coordinating with other departments.

Mallesh says that on an average he and his wife dig about five metres as a team in a 12-hour work-shift and get Rs. 75 per day and about Rs. 1,500 to 2,000 per month. However, the minimum wage fixed by the Regional Labour Commissioner (Central) is Rs. 75 per worker per eight-hour day, which means the workers are receiving only about half of what they should. Except for medical aid for injuries at worksite, they do not get any other benefits. But a company spokesman as well as the Regional Labour Commissioner's office assures you that arrangements are being made to pay ESI and PF benefits to them. How the workers will avail of these is a question mark since none of them has any ID or wage slip to prove that they ever worked.

Moreover, most contractors have taken licences only for employing contract labour but not inter-state migrants, the provisions of which are very stringent. One contractor is trying to take shelter under the claim that his maistry, and not he, has brought the inter-state workmen. But the law is very clear that "contractor" includes "agent". But strangely, the provisions in the law are only for inter-state and not intra-state migrants. Mr. R. K. A. Subrahmanya, of the Social Security Association of India, says that if only the Central Building and Other Construction Workers' Act had been brought into effect by framing the Rules, which Karnataka and several states have not done, the workers would have been eligible for several benefits including social security.

The municipalities, while they dream of flyovers at every junction, don't seem to plan for, or spend, on human rights concerns; for instance, for one workers' colony in every area, which could be rented by companies to house all their migrant and project workers for a few months under conditions ensuring human dignity. An official of a telecom company, who wishes to remain anonymous, concedes that cost has not been the constraint for not providing such a logical solution, but that these issues have been considered too `small' to merit the attention of the bigwigs in the company.

Not long ago, we were shocked at the way some of our better-off countrymen were treated in the countries to which they had gone as guest workers. Are we doing any better?

Recently, the telecom companies demanded that the telecom tariffs should not be fixed so low by the regulatory commission that they would face bankruptcy. One would presume that the same logic should apply to their workers. Their wages, working and living conditions should not be so poor that their very survival is affected. Rather than splitting hair over whether or not a law requires the companies to provide a certain amenity, should not the criterion be whether or not the companies' sense of social obligation permits the lack of such amenities? Surely, there is no sense in privatisation, if the bonanza that companies get as a result of it is not linked to voluntary codes of conduct on their part.

One hopes that the telecom companies' sense of what is "modern" is not equated with the mere holding of mobile phones to one's ears and the singing of western tunes. One hopes that the dreams they wish to share and the world of joy they wish to bring are more inclusive of everyone in the country.

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