Sharing in the Economic Boom

India is indeed booming. A very visible effect of this is the unprecedented amount of construction going on in the cities – office buildings, shopping complexes, residential complexes, schools, colleges, hotels, restaurants. People are pouring in from rural areas to work at construction sites and take up the thousands of other unskilled jobs that have opened up in the cities. As a friend of mine teaching in a small village observed, every family in that area was connected to the economy of Bangalore city four hours away, often with members migrating there for work.

The conditions the migrants live in when they migrate for work is abysmal. They live in very temporary shelters, typically creating a slum area next to the construction site. The area has no access to schools and if children accompany their parents to the city they often go with their parents to the work-site and play there, among the sharp stones and dust. Sometimes there might be access to a nearby government school, but admission to the school requires a transfer certificate (T.C.) which the parents might not have obtained from the school in the village they had left behind, either because they did not know or because of other reasons. If the child does get admitted the child is put in the age appropriate class. This could be the middle of the school year with the child having lost weeks or months of school already. And the village schools with their various challenges would not really have ensured that the children know what they are expected to know at this class. With students pouring in to city government schools from various villages the city government school has a real challenge teaching classes with students at multiple stages of learning and where the teacher student ratio is 1:40 or 1:50. What would be necessary would really be 10 different classes within the large class, a luxury not possible at the government school.

What is odd with this picture? Almost everything. The striking fact is that the poor, while contributing to the construction boom with their labor, do not appear to be benefiting from the boom. They get wages which are not a living wage. The wages might be a bit more than what they can get in their villages, but it does not provide for anything other than the very basic essentials; it does not even provide for decent shelter, let alone children’s education. That is the other striking fact about all this – neither the construction companies nor the government have done anything to ensure the wages the laborers get is a living wage. The wages are not enough to ensure that their children will have the same opportunities that the children of the users of the new buildings, the office-goers, the shoppers, and the apartment dwellers, will have. The construction companies benefit from the fact that the supply of unskilled labor is large, keeping wages down. The government lawmakers have not made laws to ensure fair wages, just saying that the economic boom will trickle down. Trickle down when? After the current generation of laborers’ children become laborers when they grow up? A living wage today, to take advantage of the economic boom, should include access to quality education for children, enabling them to participate in the new economy. Only then does the portrayed economic growth take one step towards benefiting all. Neither the market nor the government is taking steps towards this, and till they do so, it is up to non-governmental organizations to do what they can.