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Delhi’s Pollution Crisis Puts Informal Sector Employees At Risk Of Job Loss And Health Hazards

Construction workers comprised the majority of informal settlement residents surveyed at 46.6 per cent, followed by waste pickers at 10.2 per cent and street vendors at 6.9 per cent 

 Saroj, a 55-year-old construction worker living near the Bakkarwala landfill site, embodies the challenges faced by informal sector workers amid Delhi’s escalating air pollution crisis. With frequent construction bans to combat pollution, Saroj found herself periodically unemployed for the past three months, struggling to make ends meet.

For workers reliant on construction, like Saroj, the shutdown presents a significant financial setback. “There has been no stable construction work since October (Diwali)and we have been sitting at home for three months now,” she stated, citing the uncertain future provided by contractors.

Despite the polluting nature of the construction industry, it has become a necessary livelihood for workers like Saroj, exposing them to severe health repercussions. “Fever, cough, coldand stomach issues are very common for us living close to and working on construction sites,” Saroj mentioned, shedding light on the health challenges she endures due to persistent exposure to pollution.

Delhi faced its worst December in terms of air quality in 2023, with an average Air Quality Index (AQI) of 348, the highest since 2018. This led to the implementation of Stage III of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), resulting in a complete halt on construction and demolition work, except for essential government projects in Delhi and surrounding areas.

A recent survey by Help Delhi Breathe and Mahila Housing Trust revealed that informal workers, particularly those near landfill sites, bear the brunt of pollution effects. These workers grapple with challenges, including heightened exposure to outdoor activities, unfavorable working conditions, hazardous work sitesand social discrimination.

Approximately 42 per cent of respondents in the survey expressed the opinion that the government should abstain from shutting down polluting companies, emphasising the imperative of preserving jobs. The study covered 590 informal sector workers across Bakkarwala, Gokulpuri, Sawda Ghevra, Nand Nagriand Bhalswa, with construction workers comprising the majority at 46.6 per cent.

The closure of construction sites not only results in job losses but also engenders uncertainty for these workers. A substantial 77 per cent of respondents pointed to an inherent conflict between economic development and environmental protection, while 91 per cent reported falling sick due to deteriorating air quality. The survey further highlighted that 95 per cent of workers refrained from raising pollution concerns at their workplaces, primarily due to the fear of job loss.

As construction activities halt during high air pollution in Delhi, Help Delhi Breathe and Mahila Housing Trust are diligently working to raise awareness on the issue and connect workers to social security schemes that can safeguard them, according to Gurpriya Singh, a campaigner affiliated with Help Delhi Breathe.

Mahila Housing Trust Director Bijal Brahmbhatt emphasised the severe health challenges faced by informal sector workers due to Delhi’s air pollution. Waste pickers at settlements like Bhalswa face additional health issues, including contaminated water, toxic fumes from garbage burningand handling toxic waste without adequate protective equipment.

Brahmbhatt stressed the necessity for precise measures, including skill development and training programs, to provide alternative employment opportunities and reduce dependence on waste-picking for livelihoods.

Singh of Help Delhi Breathe pointed out the complexity of the issue where industry shutdowns, aimed at combating air pollution, end up disproportionately affecting workers who contribute the least to the problem. This pattern is observed not only in Delhi but across states, particularly in the construction and brick-kiln industries.

Singh also highlighted the vulnerability of women workers, who often bear additional burdens such as childcare at construction sites. “Women workers are all the more impacted due to the burdens of childcare at sites. They are usually assigned unskilled tasks and are paid less than men,” she said.

Roshini Suparna Diwakar, a senior consultant with Mahila Housing Trust, emphasised the urgent need to take action to protect construction workers from the hazardous nature of their work. Simple solutions such as providing masks, sprinkling waterand ensuring water and sanitation facilities can contribute significantly to the overall well-being of workers. Diwakar underscored the importance of looking at the issue holistically, with specific attention to implementing guidelines such as creche facilities to protect children from pollution.

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