On a bright Sunday morning in Kerala’s Wayanad, about 120 daily wage labours were standing outside the Wayanad Municipality in the town of Bathery. Hours passed by as they were waiting patiently for someone to call them for work.
But, the wait seemed endless, given the crumbling state of the construction sector in Kerala after the unforgiving deluge that ravaged the state time and again, leading to unemployment for labourers like them.
These migrant workers, who hail from several states including Karnataka, Bihar and Odisha, come to Kerala to earn a living. And by seven in the morning, they take to the streets and wait for the agency vans to pick them up for work.
But, there are no jobs here, rues Swarnadeep Dey, a worker from West Bengal’s 24 Parganas district, who had come to Wayanad about seven years ago in search of work. “It has been almost two months since we got work. I call our contractor every single day but in vain. He asks me to call again the next day,” he says.
Dey, the sole bread-winner of his family comprising his wife, three children, mother and a brother in Kolkata, adds that with a fresh heavy rain warning being sounded, “Our lives are in trouble again.”
Ban on quarrying
This August, the Mining and Geology Department in Kerala had banned quarrying across the state fearing a landslide in its hilly terrains. Eventually, the ban resulted in the shutting down of all quarries and stopped mining of sand for construction works. However, the ban was lifted after the floodwater receded, triggering a fresh debate among the environmentalists.
Now, the recent landslides in Kavalappara and Puthumala this year served as a wake-up call for the state with a section of ecologists blaming uncontrolled quarrying in the Western Ghats for the disaster.
And the landslides and heavy rainfall have now landed the construction sector in doldrums. This slowdown has not just resulted in stagnant growth of the industry in the district, but has also led to lack of employment for its workers.
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In Kerala, the worker population in the construction sector is dominated by the migrant workers. A study by the State Labour Commission in 2013 had shown that one out of every fourth adult male between 20 and 64 in Kerala is likely to be a migrant worker, according to a Live Mint report.
According to the Kerala Labour Commission, there are as many as 10,745 migrant workers in the district of Wayanad. The number includes only those who have been enrolled under the Awaaz health and insurance scheme, an initiative by the commission.
Landslides and lack of employment
Abdul, a migrant worker from Kolkata, had come to work at a construction site in Wayanad’s Kambalakkad, along with 400-500 other workers. But, after the landslides hit the district they are left jobless, he rues.
“The landslides have taken away not just the land, but also our jobs. Now, we don’t get any job most of the days. I have to save money for my family too. My children are dependent on me. Even if I don’t eat, I make sure they do,” says a hopeless Abdul.
While some of the workers had gone back to their hometowns penniless when the floods ravaged Kerala, others had no means to travel or place to save themselves from the disaster.
During August last year, Wayanad was ravaged by as many as 278 landslides and landslips of high magnitude. Again this year, a total 10 landslides shook different parts of the district in August, all indicating towards the vulnerability of the district to landslide disasters.
Speaking about the challenges in the construction sector in the state, Ayoob, district secretary, All Kerala Contractors Association, says, “Construction is done with sand, metal, cement and bricks. What are we supposed to do if these items are not available? The roads have also been blocked for over a month now. After this year March, the work that we get has quite come down,” he says.
Construction not allowed
The district has been brought under the landslide zonation map where the map indicates the areas which are prone to landslides. Construction and other related works cannot be carried out in these regions anymore.
The Wayanad District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) had also issued a notice with a new set of rules and regulations for carrying out construction, quarrying, mining and other related activities in the district.
According to the new regulations, Sahl Mohammad, a civil engineer, says that no construction can be done in any part of Wayanad. “The Panchayat is not giving permit for construction of any buildings. We have been unable to work for almost a month,” he says.
“Wayanad is a hilly district and its geography is largely dominated by hillocks, valleys and forests. If you look at the mappings, you can see that almost all areas comes under the new regulations. In this scenario, we are uncertain of what to do. Authorities are telling us that new methods will come into place. But what about our work until then?” Sahl asks.