Thursday, November 1, 2012

Today's news articles

Today’s selection of articles are from “The Financial Times” (about the building industry in India) & from “The Diplomat” (about cricket diplomacy):

October 31, 2012 5:13 pm

Little reward for builders of new India

By Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

For almost 15 years, Rambai, a sari-clad labourer from a north Indian village, has lived like a refugee in her own country – sheltering under a plastic tarpaulin, cooking over an open fire and struggling for amenities such as clean water and electricity.

She and her husband have moved often – to different states, and across India’s vast capital – enduring a harsh existence. After much hardship, they managed to send their daughter, now 17, back to their village so she could go to school.

But Rambai and her family are no idle drifters. They are part of an army of construction workers who are literally building the new India, Amid national promises of a better future, they have little to show for their toil.

“We are barely able to meet our daily expenses,” says Rambai, as she rolls chapatis in front of her blue tent in Defence Colony, an affluent neighbourhood in the heart of New Delhi. “We construct these big houses, and then the residents come and chase us away.”

India’s Congress-led government often talks of the need for “inclusive growth”, and has established large social welfare schemes to prevent the rural poor from being left behind.

The growth spurt of the past two decades has created tens of millions of urban jobs, absorbing villagers from remote rural areas on the hot, dusty building sites of a booming construction industry.

For the most part, though, these unskilled workers – recruited by labour agents, dispatched to far-away places and barely aware of their rights – are living and working in squalid conditions that the government has shown little will, or ability, to improve.

“Construction is the bridge to non-farm jobs for many farm labourers because India has not created enough manufacturing jobs,” says Manish Sabharwal, chief executive of Teamlease, a human resources company. “This is a process of transformation, but it’s messy.”

Roughly 44m Indians work in construction – up from about 18m a decade ago. According to the labour ministry, construction jobs have increased faster than any other type of employment since economic liberalisation began in 1991.

Building workers account for 9.6 per cent of the total labour force, up from 5.6 per cent in 2005, and 3.1 per cent in 1994. Factory workers have remained a steady 11 per cent of the workforce over the same period.

The construction industry has been resilient, expanding at a compounded rate of 11 per cent for the past eight years, despite a slowdown in the Indian economy. And construction jobs are expected to multiply in the future, if impediments to large-scale infrastructure projects are removed. “In China, construction workers went to 20 to 25 per cent of the labour force at the peak,” says Mr Sabharwal. “We could be heading that way.”

Yet unskilled construction jobs hardly offer upward mobility. Jobs are short-term, often just a few months. Herded from one site to another, workers – often with small children in tow – live in temporary camps, without access to services such as healthcare or schooling.

Most toil in rubber flip-flops without basic safety equipment, while their children, usually barefoot, play alongside them in the site’s dirt and debris.

Mr Sabharwal says the poor conditions reflect the failure of Indian cities to provide affordable housing or public transport for the working classes. “The squalor during construction is really a symptom of an urban problem: there is no way for them to live at the edge of the city and commute,” he said.

Abuses are rampant. In April, nearly 1,000 migrant workers were discovered in Bangalore, India’s IT capital, toiling in slave-like conditions on a huge project for the Army Welfare Housing Organisation. Workers were kept in locked sheds, paid a pittance and beaten by overseers if they complained.

Even in less extreme cases, social activists say, workers’ rights, including minimum wage requirements, are routinely trampled by contractors who have little incentive to obey labour laws, given the almost non-existent enforcement and minuscule fines for violation. Unions have almost no presence among the ever-shifting workers.

“Construction companies are flouting rules, and the penalties for violations are really minimal,” says Moushumi Basu, an activist from the People’s Union for Democratic Rights.

India’s labour ministry admits that “poor working conditions, low wages and inadequate provision for social security” are serious problems in construction, along with “significant wage differentials” between men and women. But the industry is viewed as an important source of future job growth.

The government has sought to create a social safety net for construction workers, with special welfare boards in each state, funded by a tax of up to 2 per cent on building costs. The boards are meant to help with large medical expenses, scholarships for children, pensions and even home loans. But few workers know they exist, let alone how to access their benefits.

Defence Colony, home to retired army officers and their scions, is being transformed, as builders knock down the original two-storey homes, and replace them with four-storey blocks.

Property owners receive up to $6m for selling plots outright, or take a combination of cash and flats in the new building. New apartments sell for about $1.5m, or are rented out for $4,000 or more per month. With building costs at about $500,000 for each four-storey block – in part due to low labour costs – profits are significant.

Workers are not sharing in this bounty. Rambai, who has been working on a municipal project to lay a new sewer in Defence Colony for the past two months, says she gets only Rs200 ($3.72) per day, below New Delhi’s Rs270 minimum wage. A woman labourer building a swish new building nearby says she receives only Rs155. Her children scrabble in the dirt – their prospects for an education bleak.

“We are just poor people,” says Rambai. “Who is going to bother about us?” 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012. You may share using our article tools.


By Sanjay Kumar
October 31, 2012

There is a chill in the air between India and Pakistan, but the relationship between the two largest sub-continental neighbors is warming. The announcement on Monday that cricketing ties between India and Pakistan would resume is an indication of growing warmth between the two countries.

India broke all sporting ties with its western neighbour after the 26/11 Mumbai attack, which New Delhi claims was orchestrated by Pakistan-based terrorist groups in collusion with the country’s intelligence agencies. 

The decision to engage Pakistan in sports marks a major departure from India’s stated position of not resuming any bilateral sporting activities until Islamabad acts against the alleged perpetrators of the 26/11 attacks.

The cricket itinerary that starts from December 25 is very short. The series will consist of three One-Day Internationals and two Twenty-20 matches, but it sends a larger political message to the outside world .

Resumption of sporting activities should also be seen in the context of recent developments in the political and economic fronts. Not long ago, former Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna had a successful visit to Islamabad where he signed a number of agreements – the prominent ones being the easing of visa restrictions, greater people to people interactions and the strengthening of economic ties. Pakistan has already given India Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status. For the first time New Delhi hosted a Pakistani trade fair several months ago. Today, the Indian capital is the proud owner of a Pakistani designer shop, something which has never happened in the last six decades.

Overall, the resumption of cricketing ties was just a matter of time. There is already  speculation that Pakistani players will soon become a part of the Indian Premier League (IPL). After the 2008 Mumbai attack, the IPL stopped accepting Pakistani players out of security concerns in India. At the time, the general mood was also not in favour of inviting players from the other side of the border.

But the mood has changed. Political commentators believe that Monday’s development might be a precursor to the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Islamabad, which has been long overdue.

Image credit: Wikicommons

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