Delhi Building Collapse:
Crime Against Unorganised Workers

[CPI(ML) teams conducted an investigation into the collapse of a building in Laxminagar, in which a large number of workers and their families were killed. A team comprising CPI(ML) CCM Prabhat Kumar, Delhi State Committee members Amarnath Tiwari and V K S Gautam, and Comrade Gourishankar, visited the site on November 16. This was followed up by a visit to the Lalita Park Community Hall by East Delhi Secretary VKS Gautam, as well as Narendra, Chandan Negi, Uma Gupta, and Kanika Singh, in which they met some of the survivors of the incident. The main findings and recommendations of these fact-finding teams are summarised in the report below.]

In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?

– Bertolt Brecht, Questions from a Worker Who Reads

Not long after the CWG, the myth of Delhi as a 'world-class city' came tumbling down on the heads of its dispossessed in a cruel, criminal and tragic way. Not far from the Games Village, in the crowded locality of Lalita Park in Laxminagar, East Delhi, a building packed with migrant workers collapsed without warning. 67 of them were killed, buried under the debris, and some 100 were injured, many of them severely.
The Death Trap
The building that collapsed had violated multiple building regulations. The construction material used in it was reportedly poor, and was sourced by the owner from a scrap dealer who had got the material from two collapsed buildings in Ghaziabad. The owner has cases against him for dealing in fake cement. The cement used in this building too was substandard.
The building, constructed in 1990 had walls but no pillars to support it. Further it bore the weight of several illegal floors. According to the residents who survived, there were 7 floors excluding a basement. The 7th and final floor had relatively fewer people because it was as yet not fully constructed. Each floor had about 15 rooms, each of which had anything between 5 and 20 people packed into it. The rent was either Rs. 2000-2500 per room, or, if a single person could not pay that amount, Rs 300 per person, which would take the rent up to Rs 4000-5000 per room. But there was no formal rent agreement, and no one got any receipt for payment of rent.
The basement was the warehouse for a tent-house. On the ground floor, there were sewing machines stored. The first floor was used as a storehouse for soft drinks and snacks. The rest of the floors (2-6) were all residential.
The building stood on the sandy Yamuna floodplain, and with the flooding during the monsoons, water had seeped to the foundations. As a result, the building, a flimsy construction having walls but no pillars, and bearing the weight of several illegal floors packed with people, collapsed.
The Culpability of the MCD and Delhi Government
How was such a building allowed to be constructed, and allowed to stand year after year? How can building safety laws and regulations, as well as the Delhi Rent Act be violated in this way?
The owner of the building, Amrit Pal Singh, has been arrested. He is known to have several cases against him, since he has been involved in rackets of illegal cement and liquor. He is said to be close to Delhi’s Finance Minister A K Walia, who is also the MLA (elected from the Congress) of the area. He is also known have close ties with the MCD authorities.
Clearly the MCD, which is invested with the authority and responsibility to check unauthorised constructions, is culpable.
The Flood Control department and Delhi Jal Board also failed to drain out the flood water from the area, which further weakened the building.
Above all, however, it must be recognised that such unauthorised buildings and informal and exploitative rent arrangements are the norm, not the exception, in Delhi. There are countless other buildings in a similarly unsafe condition.
In a spectacular act of callousness, the authorities have (in an attempt to be seen taking some action) summarily evicted the residents from some of these buildings and left them homeless, taking temporary shelter in MCD community halls and open parks.
To sum up, the Delhi Government and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi have come under the scanner for allowing rampant illegal and unauthorised constructions in a nexus with corrupt builders and landlords. The Congress-led Delhi Government has ordered a one-man judicial enquiry into the incident and tried to point fingers at the BJP-controlled MCD which gave permission for construction of the doomed building in the first place and allowed it to stand subsequently.
Structural Violence
In the shadow-boxing between Congress and BJP over the incidentg, we are apt to lose sight of the real crime. To locate who really is responsible for this senseless death of 67 people, we need to dig deeper beneath the debris of the collapsed building and look beyond the petty perpetrators like the landlord and corrupt or negligent MCD authorities (though they too need to be brought to book). We need to see the building collapse, not as an ‘accident’ caused due to acts of omission but as part of the violence against the unorganised sector workers that is structured into the very process of liberalised ‘development.’ The very process of transforming Delhi into a ‘world-class city’ has been a euphemism for a virtual war on Delhi’s poor – including large-scale slum demolitions, evictions, loss of employment, displacement, institutionalised violation of labour laws and denial of identity and job security to unorganised workers – and the CWG has only been a pretext to intensify this process. The daily lives of the people who lived in the Lalita Park building exemplify this violence – it is only when a building collapses that the violence comes into public cognition.
Let us examine some aspects of this quiet violence that assaults the lives of migrant workers daily.
Urban Apartheid
Delhi is experiencing a construction boom. All around the capital city, in the NCR region, one can see ads for posh residential enclaves and gated communities – oases with greenery, pools, airy rooms. Some of them are given American- or British-sounding names - Central Park, Beverley Park, Hamilton Court – strengthening the impression that they are indeed a foreign land within the country. The Games Village, close to the collapsed building, too is likely to become one of these elite enclaves.
The construction boom included the whole range of infrastructural work towards the CWG – including flyovers, stadia, modernisation of the airport and Delhi Metro. The government had declared its intention to spend Rs. 26,000 crore on all these constructions; the actual amount spent might be much higher. In fact Shiela Dixit has countered the charges of wastage of money on CG by arguing that after all, the bulk of the CWG expense was on augmenting the city’s infrastructure for Delhi’s long-term needs.
It seems that the city’s poorest workers figure nowhere in the government’s projection of the city’s ‘long-term needs.’ Nearly 400,000 people were evicted from their slum dwellings since 2004 to make way for the ambitious construction projects. Most of Delhi’s poor are condemned to live in unsafe, insanitary slums, and once evicted from there, in unauthorised colonies that are no better than death traps.
Between the Devil of Eviction and Deep Sea of Death
Most of the workers living in the collapsed building were forced to migrate from rural W Bengal and Bihar thanks to unemployment. In Delhi they had lived in the Yamuna Pushta slum but were evicted at one point or another since 2004. The large scale evictions from Delhi’s slum clusters (including the Yamuna Pushta slum as well as Nangla Machi and Bhati Mines) took place in the name of conserving the environmentally fragile Yamuna flood plain. But in the eyes of governments and courts, only slum dwellers were a threat to the environment; the vast Akshardham temple and the Games Village came up on the same space with impunity. A flyover too has been built in the same space. In 2006, when evicted slum dwellers approached court, a Supreme Court judge branded them ‘encroachers’, commented on how slums keep ‘growing and growing’, and held that the right to shelter did not mean that “all will be given shelter.” She told them, “If you can't afford to stay in Delhi, go elsewhere!” Rendered homeless, such workers then pay much of their meagre income as exorbitant rents to landlords for the hellish homes, of which the building that collapsed was just one among many. Those in the slums live in constant threat of eviction, in filthy surroundings, while those evicted live in the flimsy unauthorised colonies.
The Rajiv Awas Mirage
The Congress party and its Delhi Government is fully aware that housing is a highly sensitive issue for the city’s poor. Shiela Dixit was re-elected in the last Assembly elections on the strength of her promise of a ‘slum-free Delhi’ thanks to the JNNURM Rajiv Awas Yojana. Just prior to notification of elections, her Government announced that 8500 houses per year would be allocated to BPL-holders under this scheme. More than 6 lakh people submitted applications. The application fee was Rs 100, but many, in order to get their applications accepted, had to pay brokers between Rs 500-700 each. The Congress also promised to regularise the over 1600 unauthorised colonies in the city. The party held camps in these colonies in which Sonia Gandhi and other Congress leaders distributed provisional ‘authorisation certificates’ (which, since they have no legal value, being issued by the party rather than the government, was nothing but an election stunt.) The Government also announced that BPL cards would be issued to each and every poor person in Delhi; many lakhs of BPL applications were deposited.
The Government has Rs 6,00,00,000 of workers’ hard-earned money deposited under the head of Rajiv Awas Yojana. But not a single Rajiv Awas house (though the distribution was to begin in a year). What happened to that money? The slum evictions have proceeded relentlessly – but the Government’s own promise of housing at least a section of these labouring people has been cynically forgotten.
Immediately after elections, lakhs of BPL cards were cancelled in the name of ‘verification’ and correction of the BPL list, and in slums and poor colonies, the BPL cancellation ratio is very high. Poor migrant workers of Delhi have been deliberately deprived of identity and citizenship rights – they rarely have any voter identity cards, since even if they have lived in Delhi for decades, they lack any proof of property possession (water bill, electricity bill) required to get a voter i-card. There also lack proof of employment, since muster rolls at work sites systematically refuse to name them. Their insecurity and lack of identity helps to suppress the wage rate. The only way in which poor migrant and unorganised workers can secure identity proof is by paying a few thousands of rupees to brokers.
In the wake of the disaster, the Delhi Government has announced that some 15,000 low-cost flats under the Rajiv Awas Yojana will soon be allotted to slum-dwellers. There are an estimated 10 lakh migrant workers in Delhi – can 15,000 flats (if and when they are allocated) be anything but a joke for them, who will continue to be condemned to live in slums in danger of being evicted or shanties in danger of being buried alive?
Insecure Homes, Insecure Work
The threat of death lurks everywhere for Delhi’s unorganised workers – not only in the unsafe homes they inhabit. For instance, between 2008 and 2010, 58 construction workers in Delhi died in accidents (25 at the CWG/airport/metro sites) and a total of 128 were injured. At these sites, as well as in Delhi’s factories, minimum wage laws are routinely violated, and so are workplace safety laws.
Delhi’s transformation has also engendered their means of survival. Rickshaw pullers, street vendors, are face eviction in the days to come.
Many of those who died or lost loved ones in the collapse were those who had worked on Metro or Games Village construction sites. They feel buried under the dead weight of the very same glittering city they laboured to build.
Ensure Housing, Workplace Rights, Identity and Dignity for All
Those who lost their lives in the building collapse are among that vast mass whose labour builds shining new Delhi and serves the affluent in their gated communities; who are routinely paid less than minimum wages and killed at construction site accidents; whose rickshaws and vending-carts are being taken off the streets; whom the Delhi Government sought to hide behind 'vision-cutters' so that they do not mar the vision of 'Incredible India' that foreign guests came to see at CWG. These unorganised migrant workers, as a rule, have no ration cards and rarely voter i-cards, and therefore no access to social security. Evicted from slums, killed at construction sites, treated as vermin, buried under debris - why do the poor and migrant workers have no chance of a life of dignity and security?
Those whose family members have been killed or injured in the building collapse must get dignified and adequate compensation. Not only must unsafe buildings be identified and demolished; those living in them must be guaranteed dignified alternative accommodation. Authorities responsible for allowing these death traps to come up and remain, as well as unscrupulous builders and owners must be identified and punished. But these measures, while necessary, are still inadequate. Neither can cosmetic measures like the Rajiv Awas mirage suffice. The building collapse should serve as a warning bell to end the skewed urban planning policies that amount to a kind of urban apartheid, condemning an entire class of people to suffer inhuman living and working conditions while a small minority enjoys affluence and ‘development.’ Not until the lives and rights of unorganised workers and migrant workers cease to be seen as cheap and dispensable; not until the ruling class stops sacrificing the workers’ rights to a living wage, dignified housing and workplace safety to subsidise ‘development’ can the victims of the Laxminagar collapse really get justice.
Survivors Speak
Harinandan Prasad, 35, from Bhatpura, Saharsa, Bihar, says, “I lost my brother Tari Yadav, 32, in the collapse. I too used to live in this building but had been away for some time.”
Madan Ram, also from the same Saharsa village, said,
“I’ve been in Delhi since 2002. There were quite a few from our village in this building. At the time of the incident, there were 15 of us living in one room on the 6th floor. 10 of them lost their lives in the collapse, while 2 are badly injured and in hospital. One of them has a crushed leg and the other, a severe injury in the chest. The few people who lived on the 7th floor were all killed. I recall three boys – students who had come to Delhi to work so as to collect enough to pay for their education. All three were unmarried. The bodied of two of them – Valmiki and Chhote – have been found while the third, Phool Jha, is yet to be found.
“I pull a rickshaw, but sometimes I work as a ‘beldar’ (construction load bearers) or even work in a factory. I have many dependants, and I must perforce send home Rs 3000 a month. So I must earn at least Rs 4000-5000 a month so as to survive in Delhi, and send money home even it means going hungry here.
“In Bihar there is no unemployment for the likes of us, and prices are shooting up. Who would want to come to Delhi of their own accord?
The others who lived here with us worked as masons and load bearers. Sometimes we would get work demolishing buildings for the MCD.” Someone else added here, “The owner (Amritpal Singh) had very good relations with the MCD and that helped us get such work.”
Madan went on, “On and off we would be forced to return to Bihar, due to being ill or out of work. Whenever we would come back, we would, lacking money, have to get rations from Mohd. Ashik or Dipak Lala on loan (they charged more for such purchases) and pay it the next month. Caught in this vicious circle, we could never fully get out of it.
“Bihar’s ruling dispensation (which could not provide employment) forced our friends to leave their villages – and now Delhi has swallowed them up.”
Amit Kumar, 32, said: “I first came to Delhi 15 years ago from Murshidabad, West Bengal. I had been living with my wife Uma Devi (28) and son Saurabh (3 and a half) in the Yamuna Pushta jhuggi, where there’s a flyover now. We were evicted in the name of curbing dirt and pollution.
“I was one of the lucky few who got a plot allotted near Bawana, 30 km away from Laxminagar. Most of the others began living in Laxminagar ever since the evictions. I shifted with my family to the resettlement colony, but there were no basic facilities for water, sanitation etc. We would have put up all that – but there was no work in that area. We could hardly survive on air or mud. I had to come daily to Laxminagar to work, selling vegetables, while my wife and son stayed there. The journey took 2 and a half hours each way, and cost me Rs 40 a day. Then a direct bus started between that place and Laxminagar, and the cost of transport came down to Rs 30 a day. Still, as prices soared, it became impossible to spend Rs 900 on transport a month. So my wife said it’s better to live in Laxminagar, and use the time saved to take up some other work and earn some more money. That’s why we came to live in this building, paying Rs 2000 as rent.
That day, I had gone out to buy provisions and when I came back to find the building collapsed, I fainted away. Amrit Singh devoured both my wife and child. My son could never visit either my parents’ home nor ever meet his maternal grandparents.”
A large number of the victims were from Murshidabad, while many were also from Katihar, Bihar. Sridip Haldar from Murshidabad lost his son Khodu in the collapse, and his wife and two daughters are injured. He was a Metro construction worker. Dipak Haldar, also from Murshidabad who used to work on the Metro sites, lost his wife Taposhi and daughter Sonia, as well as his brother-in-law. His son, sister-in-law and mother-in-law are all injured. Mohammad Aslam from W Bengal was a tenant in the building and used to sell tea outside the building. He lived on the second floor with his two sons – one was killed and the other injured.
Karmlal Yadav’s brother Phuleshwar (25), who too was a Metro worker, is missing, but the police has not filed a missing report. Karmlal says there were some 15-20 people from Saharsa who used to ply rickshaws or work as construction workers, of whom 8 were killed and 5 injured.