Sand policy and Andhra Pradesh polls: Why 30 lakh construction sector workers across 40 trades matter

Already struggling with inflation and unemployment, construction workers have seen their funds from the welfare board halted since 2019.

ByBhaskar Basava

Published May 05, 2024 | 1:11 PM Updated May 05, 2024 | 1:11 PM

Change in sand policy hits construction workers

Barla Saraswathi, a 45-year-old woman, arrives at Benz Centre, in the heart of Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. She brings her lunch packed in a gunny bag and checks her keypad mobile phone for calls from her college-going children.

As the sun rises on this summer day, Saraswathi waits for construction builders and contractors to come and offer her work.

She is one of 3,000 people who queue up daily from 5:00 AM at the centre. She and her 50-year-old husband moved to Vijayawada a year ago from Parvathipuram in northern Andhra Pradesh because they were earning less from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) scheme, which offers about ₹300 per day.

“The prices are rising so high, how can we sustain with that amount?” Saraswathi asks. “Plus, we have two children in college in Vizianagaram. We heard that women workers here earn ₹600 a day, and men get ₹700, so my husband and I decided to move to Vijayawada.”

Barla Saraswathi, along with her co-worker Poluru Venkata Narayana, is waiting for work. (South First)

Barla Saraswathi, along with her co-worker Poluru Venkata Narayana, is waiting for work. (South First)

Whenever a visitor slows down on the road, at least 10-15 people swarm and inquire if the visitor had come to hire workers, expressing keen interest in joining immediately for daily wage labour.

However, Saraswathi and 3,000 others at the Benz Centre face a problem that is common across the state for approximately 30 lakh construction workers spanning 40 different trades.

Out of all those waiting, only a few manage to find work; the rest leave empty-handed after waiting until 11:00 AM. Everyone points to the state’s sand policy as the major issue.

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The ban

The Benz Circle junction in Vijayawada is seen gathering of workers. (South First)

The Benz Circle junction in Vijayawada is seen gathering of workers. (South First)

In June 2019, shortly after taking office, Chief Minister YS Jagan scrapped the sand policy established by the previous TDP government in 2016, which had made sand available for free.

This policy change came in response to the allegations that TDP leaders were exploiting sand resources and profiting by selling sand at inflated prices in neighbouring states.

The new regulations, which took effect on 5 September, 2019, transferred the management of sand stockyards to the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation Limited (APMDC).

This system centralised all mining operations under the government, with the sand reaches sold to a private company, JP Traders, through a tendering process.

The new price for sand, when it was set up, was around ₹370 per tonne at government-run stockyards, with additional transport charges of ₹4.90 per kilometre.

The revamped system incorporated GPS-enabled vehicles for transportation and allowed online bookings for sand deliveries, aiming to curb black market activities and ensure greater transparency in the distribution process.

Though the system was revamped, it hasn’t been able to effectively curtail the black market for sand.

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The black market

Workers are negotiating with contractors to finalise the wage. (South First)

Workers are negotiating with contractors to finalise the wage. (South First)

A realtor on condition of anonymity expressed frustration with the sand booking process, saying, “The problem is with the website used for booking sand. The stock at the designated stockyards often shows as unavailable in nearby locations.”

“Instead, the site directs us to other locations, often far away. Additionally, it’s like a queue system; we might have to wait ten days or more to get our sand delivery. There’s also a cap on the number of bookings based on the project plan we submit. Once we receive a sand delivery, we have to wait for a certain period before we can book again.”

He continued, “This leads many people to turn to the black market, causing construction costs to rise. Because of this, fewer people are getting involved in construction, and projects are progressing at a slower pace.”

An engineer overseeing the construction of a 60-flat apartment complex in Vijayawada, who asked to remain anonymous, shared that if they need sand, they call the agents because the online system has been halted since last year.

He explained, “If we need a bill, they give it at the online rate, but we end up paying twice that amount. For this apartment complex alone, we’ve spent around ₹50 lakh just on sand. The cost per tonne ranges from ₹600 to 900, depending on market rates.”

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No May Day

Workers are negotiating with contractors to finalise the wage. (South First)

Workers are negotiating with contractors to finalise the wage. (South First)

Tirumala Malleswar shared with South First that he is a Mestri (master) who once provided employment for at least 20 people and now finds himself among those seeking work.

He blames the current sand policy for this shift and urges both the state government and opposition parties to make sand freely available, which he believes could bring their livelihoods back on track.

“This centre used to be bustling with builders and contractors, but now no one is coming. I stand here with hope, but I return home empty-handed,” he said.

Kumar pointed out that this isn’t just a problem for cement wage workers but also for the entire ecosystem of 40 craft trades, which include painters, carpenters, and tile workers. “All of them are now struggling to find work,” he added.

“We didn’t celebrate May Day; instead, we protested to draw attention to our issues,” he explained in a sad note.

Nannapu Prakash, a cement worker, explained: “When the old sand policy was scrapped, there was a complete shortage for six months until the new policy came into effect. Later, COVID-19 disrupted the market, so you can’t really blame anyone for that. But now, the construction sector has slowed down due to ongoing issues with the sand supply.”

“We used to earn at least ₹700-₹900 per day, but now the construction agents are offering us ₹400-₹500, and we still go because we have no other choice. This is the summer season, which is typically our busiest time for work. During the rainy season, we don’t have any work. How are we supposed to survive?” he lamented.

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No welfare fund

Badhav Vijaya and Kengam Lakshmi pose for a picture, keeping their hustle of their daily lives side.(South First)

Badhav Vijaya and Kengam Lakshmi pose for a picture, amidst their hustle .(South First)

Koppula Kumar, President of the Vijayawada Building Construction Workers Union (not affiliated to any political party), explained to South First that the Andhra Pradesh Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board was established in 2007 during the tenure of Chief Minister YS Rajasekhar Reddy.

This board continued through the terms of three subsequent chief ministers: Konijeti Rosaiah, Kiran Kumar Reddy, and N Chandrababu Naidu.

The board was created under the framework of the central government’s Building and Other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996.

It has registered around 20 lakh workers in Andhra Pradesh. As per the act, the board’s budget is sourced from central government grants and contributions made by the labourers.

Since 2019, funds intended for various purposes have been halted. These include immediate assistance in case of accidents, with amounts ranging from ₹20,000 to ₹6,00,000 in case of death.

Additionally, funds for child delivery and marriage for family members, which could go up to ₹1,00,000, have also been discontinued.

Diverted funds to YSR Bhima

Paint workers share the 'news of the day' while waiting for work. (South First)

Paint workers share the ‘news of the day’ while waiting for work. (South First)

Koppula Kumar and other workers claim that the state government, through Government Orders (GOs) 12 and 14, diverted around ₹1,200 crore in welfare funds intended for labourers to YSR Bhima, a welfare scheme by YS Jagan that provides insurance to below-poverty-line (BPL) families in the event of death or disability of the family’s primary breadwinner.

Workers allege that their contributions have been taken away and the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act has been diluted.

A painter, Shekar Parasa mentioned that he suffered a fall while painting at work but hasn’t received any compensation despite applying for it. His experience is echoed by 58-year-old Kukkamalla Nagendra, who said his daughter recently gave birth, but they have not received any financial support from the welfare board.

With rising prices for essentials and increasing rent, they find it increasingly challenging to make ends meet, especially since they only get work three times only in a week, leaving the other days.