Labourers in Vijayawadain the lurch due to A.P. govt.’s new sand policy

With construction projects in Vijayawada stagnating due to the government’s new sand policy, labourers are struggling to secure daily wages, exacerbating unemployment rates. Despite efforts to access welfare schemes, the lack of employment opportunities highlights the widening gap between development initiatives and the plight of workers in the informal sector, writes Nellore Sravani

Updated - May 03, 2024 09:50 am IST

Published - May 03, 2024 08:42 am IST

Hope amid hardship:Daily wage labourers assembling at Benz Circle in Vijayawada, during the early hours, in the hope of getting work. Their work, which varies daily, primarily revolves around construction and related industries.

Hope amid hardship:Daily wage labourers assembling at Benz Circle in Vijayawada, during the early hours, in the hope of getting work. Their work, which varies daily, primarily revolves around construction and related industries. | Photo Credit: K.V.S. GIRI

On a Friday morning, with the mercury soaring to 42 degrees Celsius, Balu, 35, seated on a bench under an awning of a tea stall with a newspaper in hand, is fidgety. His furrowed brow and slumped shoulders show his anxiety. He, like most other labourers gathered at Benz Circle in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, await a work call from their contractors. It is 10.30 a.m., and Balu’s hope for a day’s labour and wages to support his family in Madhura Nagar in the city, are dwindling. Yet, he stays put at the centre, the busiest place in the city, where the two main National Highways — NH-65 and NH-16 — intersect. 

There are around 30 such labour ‘addas’ (hubs) in Vijayawada, where daily wage earners flock from nearby and distant areas in the early hours, in the hope of securing work. Benz Circle, where around 700 labourers converge every day, is the biggest adda in the city. Their collective aspiration is not to return home empty-handed. However, some of these labourers inevitably find themselves without work. They linger until noon, taking shelter near shops, on the roadside, or under the flyover, while some patiently stay on their feet. 

Their work, which varies daily, primarily revolves around construction and related industries. From loading and unloading to tinkering, wall painting, water tank cleaning, drainage, and road construction, their responsibilities span a spectrum. In the past five years, however, the going has been tough, they say. Most of them have often had to go without work, and hence wages, for up to a week at a stretch. 

“This has been our everyday situation for the past five years,” Balu says, wiping off the sweat beads on his forehead with a red towel wrapped around his neck. “So much has changed in all these years. Until the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, things were fine. But it is post pandemic that the situation got worse. There is no work for us. Even when we are approached by owners or contractors, we are offered ₹600 or ₹700 a day. My income per month does not exceed ₹10,000. How can that be enough to run a household of four, especially when prices of oil, rice, and all other essentials have risen,” asks Balu. His wife earns ₹7,000 working as a domestic help in the city. “The house rent itself is ₹7,000 here,” he adds. 

The last time he got work was three days ago. He received ₹1,000 for construction-related work at a hospital from 12 noon to 5.30 p.m. 

Impact of sand policy 

B. Nagamani (38), another labourer who has also not had any work in the past three days, points out that things took a turn for the worse after the new government took office in 2019. Her sentiment is echoed by a chorus of voices. The government’s announcement of three capitals put a stop to construction projects in Amaravati, the previous government’s chosen capital near Vijayawada. 

Then, the new sand policy of the YSR Congress Party government came into effect in 2019, which scrapped the free sand policy implemented by the previous Telugu Desam Party (TDP) regime. It put the cost of one ton of sand at ₹370, available exclusively through the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation’s stockyards. 

On the sand policy in the State, former Secretary to the Government of India, E.A.S. Sarma, says: “Whether it is free or not, sand mining creates employment and provides livelihood to those who need it. It is doubtful whether sand contractors give minimum wages to workers. If minimum wage payments are enforced, it will benefit them.” 

When sand was freely accessible, construction projects surged. However, once the government put a price on it, budgets shot up, making them unaffordable for some builders. This resulted in cost-cutting. 

Jai Krishna is one of the few builders who stayed back in the city. “Many builders I knew have had to move to smaller cities in the State like Tirupati, where they are starting from scratch and where they do not have to invest much. Our three main requirements — bricks, sand and transportation — have become costlier in the State. There was a time when I used to take up construction of 40 apartments in the Vijayawada-Guntur region; now it has come down to 10. Why would people want to buy a property when they have no idea where the capital is going to be,” asks Jai Krishna. These days, he adds, builders are bringing labourers from Odisha because many in the State have migrated to Hyderabad in neighbouring Telangana. 

“In our council itself, there used to be 500 active builders earlier. Now the number has come down to 150. Many builders and labourers have migrated to other cities in search of work. There is no rotation of money in the market and the purchasing capacity of an individual has come down. Only big companies are staying afloat, while the smaller ones have taken a beating. We hope that this is addressed by whichever party forms the government after elections,” says Sandeep Mandava, Central Zone president of National Real Estate Development Council and CEO of Malaxmi Infra Ventures Pvt. Ltd. that constructs residential, commercial, and institutional buildings. 

“The capital conundrum, coupled with the sand policy, brought construction activities to a grinding halt. The labourers were the first casualty,” he points out. 

‘Benefits’ of doubt 

Some men say their wives work in homes, caring for other families, which helps them cover household expenses. Another set of labourers say they receive benefits from certain State government schemes, and the funds are deposited directly into their accounts. “That helped us get by for a while. But we did not receive any assistance last year,” says Nageswara Rao (55), whose wife got ₹15,000 as part of the YSR Kapu Nestham scheme. Launched in 2020 for the welfare of women from the Kapu community, the scheme ensures ₹15,000 annually for all eligible woman aged between 45 and 60 for five years. 

These days, some labourers are dependent on the ‘Annadanam’ programme organised by a few devout people, who feed the hungry sometimes. Nagamani reminisces about the time when meals were not a problem during the TDP rule, through its Anna Canteens, where meals were priced at ₹5. 

As a rule, all workers in the informal sector must be enrolled under the Andhra Pradesh Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board to access various benefits and insurance. According to the website, there have been 20 lakh registrations to date. Sarma alleges that all the benefits don’t reach the workers, citing corruption within the Labour Department that formulates and implements the schemes. 

Explaining unemployment, Rahul Menon, Associate Professor in the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy at O.P. Jindal Global University, says the bar to define unemployment in the country is very, very low. “If a person is employed for seven months and unemployed for the next five months, they are considered employed. Similarly, in a week, if you work even for just a day, you are considered employed. But if the unemployment rate is consistently increasing by the year, it indicates that there is a large section of labour force that is seeking work and not getting it,” Menon says. 

Experts in the real estate sector believe that the entire State mirrors the situation in Vijayawada when it comes to decreasing employment opportunities in the informal sector. 

Chakradhar Buddha, co-founder of LibTech India, a network of professionals that facilitates public service delivery, says most people turn to the construction sector due to agrarian distress. “For agricultural workers, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme and the construction sector are buffer zones. When they do not find work here, they migrate. However, there are different types of migration. One is where only the male migrates to the urban areas and the second is where the whole family is forced to shift base due to a mounting financial burden. Migration of the first kind is happening in the State because one member of the family has to be here to receive benefits of welfare schemes,” he says. 

At Benz Circle, over 50% of the labourers are from Andhra’s northern districts of Srikakulam and Vizianagaram. But they did not migrate recently. The two regions have always been neglected and people from here always migrate to other places in search of work, Chakradhar says. One can find people from these areas in Bihar and Jammu & Kashmir too, he adds. 

Gutta Rohith, State Secretary of the Human Rights Forum that works towards an equal society, agrees with Chakradhar. He adds that, “The government ensures that people are physically present to receive the funds and pension, among other things. This is nothing but a coercive incentive. The choice of migrating alone or with the whole family should be left to the individual. The real picture of work crisis is yet to emerge because one in a family has to always stay back.” 

Builders and labourers are hopeful that the elections will bring about a change in their fortunes. “Whichever party comes to power; they have to understand that the State will progress only when there is an equal focus on welfare schemes and development. Welfare schemes alone do not translate into a State’s development,” Mandava says. 

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