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Chennai Building Collapse

The Tragedy of Fixing Responsibility

Kunal Shankar (shankar.kunal@gmail.com) is a freelance journalist and former Supreme Court reporter based in Chennai.

The brazen flouting of construction norms by unscrupulous builders coupled with official apathy towards these transgressions, perhaps, led to the collapse of an 11-storey building under construction in Chennai in June 2014, resulting in loss of life. An overhaul of the existing rules and regulations governing the construction industry, as well as putting stronger enforcement mechanisms in place could prevent such tragedies from recurring in future.   

On 28 June 2014, an 11-storey building under construction collapsed near Chennai. A fortnight after the collapse, a white board outside Royapettah Government Hospital's morgue in Chennai told the sordid tale of 42 victims whose bodies the institution had received. They were grouped in three categories – those with names, sex and age; those as "unidentified" and others as "unknown".

In the days following the tragedy, families of the 61 dead fought over bodies, some because they were mutilated beyond recognition, others, because the employer Prime Sristi Construction did not have records of those who worked on the day of the accident, or for that matter, a comprehensive list of all construction workers from the time the project began in January 2013.

Competitive politics followed with the Tamil Nadu government announcing Rs 50,000 for the injured and Rs 200,000 for the families of those who died. This was then increased by Rs 500,000 for the dead from Tamil Nadu to outdo the compensation announced by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu.  Naidu had visited Moulivakkam, a marshy western suburb of Chennai, the day after the accident, and announced Rs 500,000 for the kith of the dead from his state. Most of the workers working in the building on that fateful day were either from Andhra Pradesh or Odisha. 

A Special Investigation Team was set up directly under the supervision of the Chennai police commissioner, and soil tests proved that the buildings were constructed on unsafe ground. To date, the government has directed demolition of the remaining tower, and Prime Sristi's board members, Manoharan and his son Muthu, have been in custody from the day of the accident, under charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

The tragedy during most such industrial or construction accidents is not just the loss of life, but often employees' lack of knowledge of laws that entitle them compensation through a grievance redress mechanism. It is also compounded due to the administration's indifference to follow through; and at times collusion with employers scuttling prosecutorial efforts under laws such as the Workmen's Compensation Act or the Building and Other Construction Workers Act.

Workmen's Compensation Act

Ironically, a colonial era law, The Workmen's Compensation Act (WCA), 1923  is the most effective way to redress accident grievances. The WCA envisages payment of compensation based on three factors –the nature of injury (temporary or permanent disability, or death), age of the employee at the time of accident and his monthly wage. These are used to determine what is called a "multiplying factor", to arrive at the amount the employer must pay to compensate for injury while on duty.

Hypothetically, the family of a 30 year old mason who died at Moulivakkam with a daily wage of Rs 450 (Rs 11,700 per month), could claim a compensation of Rs 1,216,683, (over Rs 12 lakhs) almost twice the sum announced by the Tamil Nadu chief minister. The math is – 5,850 (half monthly wage) multiplied by 207.98 (multiplying factor). Taking the average age of those dead and injured, Prime Sristi could be asked to pay close to Rs 15 million in employee compensation alone.

Section 10B of the law empowers labour commissioners to conduct inquiries on their own and seek a report from the employer within a week upon receipt of news of an accident. Other sections empower authorities to direct part deposit of compensation to the extent the employer feels is justified. A claims proceeding then follows.

Unfortunately, there is little knowledge of this law even in the organised sector. Those in construction work seldom seek redress through this mechanism unless committed unions step in. In the case of the Moulivakkam incident, the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam, (Nirmana) arguably the country's largest and most proactive union of construction workers took up the case and petitioned the labour commissioner to initiate action. The commissioner sought replies from the builder on 3 July, five days after the disaster. They were at pains to explain the labour department's proactive efforts including initiating action against a warehouse owner in Thiruvallur near Chennai, whose compound wall collapsed killing 11 people days after the Moulivakkam tragedy. At the time of writing this article, Prime Sristi had not replied to the notice.

Activists like Geetha Ramakrishnan of Nirmana argue that such swift action is not the norm. She says countless cases, where casualties are not as big and are outside the media gaze, languish for decades, or get covered up.

Take the case of Selvaraj. He was 31 when he and his wife Muthamma were working on a renovation site of a dilapidated building in north Chennai when tragedy struck in April 2000. Selvaraj was collecting rubble on the first floor of the two storey structure when he felt the entire ceiling tremble. He remembers waking up in Chennai's Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital with his left leg amputated. His right leg was later saved with the insertion of a steel plate from the hip down. He was earning Rs 40 a day as a helper and his wife 10 rupees less.

On 10 April  2000, a first information report filed with Chennai's North Beach police station named people who were injured in this tragedy. It was filed by a relative of Selvaraj's colleague who died. It blamed the owner's negligence to provide "safe and proper protection" for the employees and requested action against him. When Selvaraj returned to check on the status of the case, he was blamed for attempting to extort from a "wealthy man by levelling false accusations of an incident that never happened". Selvaraj is today a security guard in a posh southern Chennai suburb and his wife Muthamma works as a domestic help in the neighbourhood.

Lawyers, however, say that WCA is an effective law, although lately it has not been very successful in bringing the guilty to book. They attribute this to corruption that they say has crept into the system, with builders enjoying an uncomfortable proximity to authorities. There are also touts who approach vulnerable victims post accidents to make a quick buck, promising them compensation.

A senior labour lawyer at the Madras High Court, Anna Mathew, points to a case she argued for an employee who was injured on his first day of work with a contractor at Chennai Petroleum Corporation  in 2002. A crane's arm fell on Rajan's legs, almost permanently disabling him. While recuperating at Chennai's Government Stanley Hospital, a lawyer approached Rajan, promising to recover his loss. The lawyer filed a case under the Motor Vehicles Act. 

Mathew says "accident cases are normally reported to the police who usually have an arrangement with local lawyers—Indian version of Ambulance Chasers. The police receive kick-backs for cases they reveal to the lawyers". And in Rajan's case, a vicious cycle of deceit and manipulation followed.  He approached Mathew in sheer desperation, and it took her six months to locate the lawyer who had filed the motor vehicle claim. He initially refused to part with Rajan's brief, but relented due to the intervention of the senior in whose office he began his practice.

Finally, three years later, a claim close to Rs 450,000 was filed before the labour commissioner who only granted half that sum. An appeal in the Madras High Court followed and Rajan won his case in 2010. He was by then almost a cripple, back in Kerala, his home state, and fighting cancer. He telephones Mathew intermittently still hoping to better his claim.    

Building and Other Construction Workers Act

While several states have attempted to regulate work conditions in the construction industry, a central law was enacted only in 1996 by way of the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act (BOCW Act). Tamil Nadu took another decade to formulate rules under the Act. A law cannot be enforced until rules are framed, detailing how it will operate on the ground. It took another four years since to decide on the department that will enforce the law. The Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health (DISH), also responsible for enforcing the 1948 Factories Act, was designated to administer the law.

The BOCW Act deals with enforcing safety and welfare measures for construction workers. It mandates every builder who employs over 10 workers to be registered with DISH—something Prime Sristi did not do. Authorities do not blame negligence on the part of the builder alone. They say a "No Objection Certificate" is not required from them to commence construction. The law also mandates a notice to be given by the employer 30 days before beginning work, again something which Prime Sristi did not do.

BOCW lays down rules on safety, such as provision of goggles, gloves, helmets and safety nets, which hold up falling debris, to be provided to employees at construction sites. It stipulates the provision of living quarters, electricity, water, sanitation, day care for the children of construction workers, hours of work and overtime. It requires DISH officials to make regular inspections to ensure compliance. But since Prime Sristi was not registered with DISH, they never conducted any inspection and, therefore, had no knowledge of the kind of safety provisions that existed on the site.  

Authorities at the DISH say that they are overburdened and under staffed. Out of the sanctioned strength of 27 officer level employees, only four positions have been filled. At the staff level, none of the 31 vacancies have been filled, forcing officers to undertake clerical work as well. They say, on an average, an officer currently handles 4 to 5 districts, and with the industrial and construction boom the state is witnessing, they barely manage to complete inspections of factories under their purview let alone construction sites.

The law is also weak in penal provisions, making enforcement more difficult. The maximum penalty for a welfare violation is Rs 1,000, and this can be enforced only through a court order. For example, the lack of a toilet could invite a Rs 1,000 fine that the builder pays only after a lengthy procedure of department officials petitioning a judicial magistrate. And the maximum violation for a safety violation is Rs 2,000. It could be coupled with a three month prison term.

Builders say, "the industry has not been allowed to play a part in the implementation of the law".  A member of the Confederation of Real Estate Developer's Association of India (CREDAI) says, "The government has assumed certain responsibilities under the law. So now it has to perform". Choosing to remain anonymous, he concedes that:

In almost every construction site there is an accident happening. They all don't get the sort of media attention the Chennai incident has got. I do agree that this is a case of collective responsibility, but the builder and the developer are only partly to be blamed.

States and the central government have been slow in implementing the law. A September 2010 Supreme Court order on a public interest petition by the National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour (Nirmana's initial name) scathingly criticises the union government for "not exercising its powers under Section 60 of the 1996 Act, to direct states to set up welfare boards". It mentions Maharashtra and Goa as states that have been lackadaisical. It says,

The petitioner states that Maharashtra, which has estimated 30 lakh construction workers and which has collected, till date, Cess amounting to approximately Rs 10.53 crores, has not set up the Board. We don't understand why the Centre has not directed the State to do so yet.

Construction Workers' Welfare Board

Under the BOCW Act, each state is required to set up a Construction Workers' Welfare Board, which collects a certain percentage of the total building cost as "cess" from the builder that is to be used towards the welfare of construction workers who are registered with it.  Benefits include funds towards marriage expenses of children of construction workers, yearly education expenses based on the academic level of the child; for example the Tamil Nadu Board gives Rs 1,000 for a girl entering her 10th standard. The amounts are modest, but clearly spelt out for a slew of incidents: maternity, abortion, natural death and funeral expenses, disability allowance, retirement pension, and even a spectacle allowance.

In Tamil Nadu, the Construction Workers’Welfare Board (will subsequently be referred to as the Board) was set up in 1994 well ahead of other states in the country. The Board began collecting 0.3% cess from builders, and increased it to 1% in 2013. The Board alone with 24 lakh registered members has an estimated corpus of Rs 700 crores. Despite such high registration, not a single casualty from the site at Moulivakkam was registered with the Board.

Shanti's husband Karuppiah was on the 11th floor when the building collapsed. A conscientious worker who "worked even on Sundays", Shanti identified Karuppiah's body five days after the tragedy. Originally from Theni district, the family of four has been living in Chennai for three decades now. Shanti was one among the 14 families who personally received the cheque for Rs 700,000 from the chief minister. She does not know if Karuppiah was registered with either a board or a union.  She only recollects an "ID card". Knowledge of the possibility of further compensation through the WCA comes as a relief. A homemaker, Shanti has two daughters in their early 20s.

Work at the Board has been paralysed since March this year, when the Madras High Court ordered interim stay on deciding on beneficiaries' claims. The order was on a petition seeking reconstitution of the board that has 27 members, equally split between representatives from builders, workers and the government. The petitioner Centre of Indian Trade Unions, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s labour wing, alleges that the government has filled all the positions with cronies and has ignored "genuine mass organisations" led by opposition parties. Although they did not seek a stay on disbursement of benefits, the allegation that those close to board members get cleared for benefits sooner could have prompted the court to direct a temporary stoppage. Due to this about 200,000 claims in the current year have not been attended to.

No Benefits for Migrant Workers

The Board is also unable to spread the benefits to migrant workers. For instance, in the Maoulivakkam incident, the majority of the casualties were from out of state. The use of migrant labour is a chronic problem plaguing the construction industry. Workers usually live in squalid conditions either at the construction site or in makeshift asbestos sheds along the road. There are no official data available, but authorities and unions agree that over 70% of construction workers in Tamil Nadu are from out of state at any given time.

According to one CREDAI member, 70% of workers nationwide would be from economically backward states such as Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh.  About 500,000 Tamil Nadu workers travel out of state to Kerala, southern parts of Karnataka and Andhra as well. To address the problem, the Tamil Nadu labour department authorities issued a notice on 9 May  this year seeking consultants for "mapping inter-state migrant workers".  It mentions the "growing trend of migrant workers in the State and the need to record the numbers, their areas of residence and other particulars". The notice further states the "lack of migrant workers registration with the Board and the resultant loss of benefits that could be made available to them".

Benefits from welfare boards nationwide are disbursed only to workers who are registered with them. The registration process requires age proof and a ration card, and an endorsement by the current employer. Since most workers live on construction sites temporarily, they are unable to obtain ration cards, almost entirely defeating the intent of the law. And while the BOCW Act mandates cess collection and clearance from welfare boards even to commence construction, it puts the onus of registration on the employee and not the builder. Authorities say builders must feel a "moral obligation" and proactively facilitate registration. Moreover, beneficiaries are only those who show employment as a construction worker for 90 days of a year. The worker must also be paying a part of his wage to the board, although this provision is not implemented in Tamil Nadu. All of these factors make the boards virtually non-functional for the purpose they were set up.  

Laws such as  The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 meant to regulate the trend have proven ineffective due to the rampant practice of sub-contracting in the industry. While the law mandates builders to register particulars of migrant workmen hired for a project, it does not do so for sub-contractors who could be hired for the supply of labour.

Obtaining clearances from departments such as labour, industrial safety and the municipal corporation often even under a single law, makes the process cumbersome and time consuming, only compounding regulation of the industry. There is need for an urgent correction of existing laws to address current trends, and streamlining of the approval process. On this point both builders and government officials agree.

References

Building and Other Construction Work (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, available at http://clc.gov.in/Acts/shtm/bocw.php

Construction Workers Welfare Board, available at http://cms.tn.gov.in/sites/default/files/documents/handbook_tncwwb_1.pdf

Confederation of Real Estate Developer's Association of India, available at http://www.credai.org/

Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, available at  http://labour.gov.in/upload/uploadfiles/files/ActsandRules/Service_and_E...(Regulation%20of%20Employment%20and%20Conditions%20of%20Service)%20Act,%201979.pdf

“Naidu Announces Compensation for Victims of Building Collapse”, Outlook, 29 June, 2014, available at http://www.outlookindia.com/news/article/Naidu-Announces-Compensation-for-Victims-of-Building-Collapse/847215

Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam available at http://www.nirmana.org/

Sivakumar B (2014): “Chennai building collapse: Jayalalithaa raises compensation to victims' kin” The Times of India, June 30, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/Chennai-building-collapse-Jayalalithaa-raises-compensation-to-victims-kin/articleshow/37521055.cms

Times News Network (2014): “SIT to probe Chennai building collapse”, The Times of India, July 7 available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/SIT-to-probe-Chennai-building-collapse/articleshow/37926290.cms

The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923, available at http://labour.nic.in/upload/uploadfiles/files/ActsandRules/SocitySecurity/TheWorkmenAct1923.pdf

“Voice of the voiceless”, The Hindu, September 22, 2005, available at http://www.hindu.com/mp/2005/09/22/stories/2005092201010300.htm

Venkat, Vidya (2014): “Welfare funds for construction workers lie idle” The Hindu, July 5, available at http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-tamilnadu/welfare-funds-for-construction-workers-lie-idle/article6179567.ece

Writ Petition (Civil) no: 318 of 2006: National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour vs Union of India and Others. http://www.hrln.org/hrln/images/stories/pdf/National-Campaign-Committee-for-Central-Legislation-on-Construction-Labour-vs-Union-of-India-ors.pdf

Writ Petition (Civil) no: 8305 of 2014: Singaravelu vs Tamil Nadu Construction Workers Welfare Board and Others.

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