As New Delhi prepares to host the 11-day Commonwealth Games in October, the city is undergoing an unprecedented $6 billion building boom and beautification campaign. Much of the work is being done by more than 400,000 contract daily wage workers who have migrated to the city. Many come with their families, including children who are being exposed to hazards, lack proper hygiene and adequate care.
Some estimate that preparations for the Games, the world’s third largest multi-national sporting event, have brought an additional 10,000 children into New Delhi. Many live in squalid conditions without electricity or adequate toilet facilities, a common situation for the estimated 150,000 homeless already living on the capital’s streets or in its parks.
"In the rural area from where they are coming, it's almost a starvation situation,” explains lawyer Subhash Bhatnagar, a social activist trying to help the children. “It's a pushed-out factor, not pull factor that you will earn better in Delhi that is why you are coming. They are just pushed out of that area. They have nothing to fall back upon."
Kiran Bedi's husband is ill so she traveled with her four children 600 kilometers to Delhi to earn $2 a day and meals for her kids, who live below a highway overpass. Her children wander the construction site while she works.
"I've tried to put my children in government schools here but they are not accepted,” Bedi says. “They just dismiss us, saying we're 'labor class people.' Even if they would accept our children, how would we afford the fees?"
Some children benefit from programs run by non-profit organizations, such as Mobile Creches, which provides free schooling, day care and supplementary meals for up to 80 children at each of its facilities near 20 construction sites in the metropolitan area.
The children often move around to different sites and that constant mobility impairs their development, which hinders their access to education and health care, according to Anjali Alexander, the chairperson of Mobile Creches.
“It’s just cruel,” says Alexander, predicting that the children who are malnourished at age two will still suffer health problems decades later.
The 1996 Building and Other Construction Workers Act requires one percent of the cost of construction projects be set aside by builders for a workers' welfare fund. Delhi has managed to accumulate $70 million, but advocates calculate that a mere $30,000 worth of benefits has actually reached workers.
“Ninety-nine percent of children are not getting what they are entitled,” claims Bhatnagar during a visit to one of the crèches where sitting alongside Alexander he plays with some of smaller children.
The cost for compliance would be minimal according to the coalition Citizens for Workers, Women and Children which estimates that decent living conditions for construction workers’ families and creches for their children would amount to less than 0.35 percent of project costs.
The problem is hardly novel for a city in a developing nation with an estimated population of 15 million people -- more than one-third of them living in slums.
On nearby Lodhi Road, some of New Delhi’s most expensive buildings sit side-by-side with shanties constructed of bamboo and plastic tarpaulin.
Alexander of Mobile Creches explains that the plight of the workers and their children does not concern most middle and upper class people in Delhi.
"It’s complete apathy,” Alexander laments. “I mean you are desensitized, in a sense, because you see it every day. But, you know, it's not their issue."
The apathy, she says, starts at the top with the city’s top officials turning their backs on the most vulnerable.
Government bureaucrats do not hesitate to acknowledge the immense scope of the problem but some bristle at the notion elected leaders are heartless.
Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, four months ago, launched an anti-child labor “Time for Change” campaign urging police to proactively take action against the most visible examples of juvenile exploitation, namely those children employed at the city’s ubiquitous roadside tea stalls and similar establishments.
Local media attention, however, focuses on complaints that construction of Commonwealth Games’ venues are dangerously behind schedule rather than the plight of the workers and their families at the sites.
Activists say incidents of children wandering into traffic and getting hit by cars or succumbing from construction-site accidents are rarely recorded by authorities. India’s police, notorious for petty corruption, are seen as reluctant to take reports from the underclass, an expression of an organizational culture with roots in the British Raj.
The Delhi High Court has ordered a four-member committee, which includes Anrudhati Ghose, who is a former ambassador to the U.S. and U.N., to look into the allegations of rampant labor law violations at Commonwealth Games project sites.
Judges asked the committee to file its report by March 17. But rights groups expect the Games will be over and the workers and their families scattered before the legal process has run its course.