Construction is the second largest employment sector in India after agriculture, with 49% of the industry’s workers being women. 94% of female construction workers avoid talking about air pollution out of fear of losing their job. On building sites, the combination of dust, plant machinery and transport leave construction workers particularly vulnerable to dangerous levels of air pollution. Many workers suffer from stress, depression, loss of memory and diseases like silicosis, yet they fail to recognise air pollution as a contributing factor.
With site engineers ‘six times more exposed’ to air pollution than the average office worker, construction workers bear the brunt of the burden. Government bans on construction work during the peak polluting months prevented women from earning a living. Despite posing significant risks to their health and finances, female construction workers remain largely unrepresented in public debates around clean air.
Women are worst off in terms of compensation, work guarantees, and basic workplace facilities. Too often, they operate with little to no protection from the hazards of air pollution on construction sites in India.
Mahila Housing Trust (MHT) worked with communities and construction workers across Bakkarwala, Gokulpuri, and Sawda Ghevra, in Delhi to drive awareness of air pollution as a health issue for construction workers. MHT intervened at the individual, community and local government level: the programme developed female construction workers’ knowledge of air pollution, while putting pressure on local governments and policy makers to support policy actions. Through training, community outreach and advocacy, MHT equipped female construction workers with the tools, profile and agency to advocate for clean air.
1. Equipping women to advocate for clean air
MHT trained 75 female construction workers to develop a scientific understanding of air pollution and its causes. The construction workers learned how to use and generate actionable insights from air quality index (AQI) devices. Five construction workers acted as AQI ambassadors or ‘master trainers’ to train their peers on the devices and share knowledge.
Armed with portable AQI devices, the women could report on air pollution levels in their local area and share tangible proof of the dangerous levels of air pollution they were experiencing. These women also learned how to use the Green Delhi App, an app that allows citizens to report instances of pollution to the Delhi government.
2. Raising awareness in local communities
To drive local awareness of air pollution, AQI ambassadors visited communities with AQI monitors to measure local levels of air pollution. Men, women and children gathered to learn and talk about the sources of air pollution around them and alternative ways to mitigate the risks. The ambassadors’ outreach also drew the attention of local businesses.
MHT ran a public awareness campaign called ‘Help Delhi Breathe’ to reach a wider audience. The AQI ambassadors took part in storytelling training and shared their personal stories through video diaries online.
Further campaign activities included:
- Decorating e-rickshaws with posters about AQI levels in local communities. The team handed out over 6,000 informative pamphlets and reached over 20,000 people.
- Displaying large scale wall murals and street art depicting women in the construction industry, the impacts of air pollution on health and finances, and the lack of support for childcare.
- Hosting and recording street plays to explore local causes of air pollution and solutions.
- Organising four roundtables and workshops with media, organisations working on clean air, and groups working with construction and other informal workers.
- Distributing 50,000 pamphlets across the city in partnership with the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board
3. Engaging with government for real change
To complement the public campaigning, MHT engaged with local government and other key stakeholders to encourage a shift in policy, including the Labour Department, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, and the Central Pollution Control Board. MHT met with three members of legislative assemblies (MLAs) over the course of the project. The organisation also built partnerships with government officials and representatives, including those from the Delhi Government’s city-wide clean air campaign, Yudh Pradhushan ke Virudh.
MHT’s programme raised awareness of air pollution across sectors and levels to drive tangible change. Over 1,700 women downloaded the Green Delhi app, leading to 12 complaints being filed and resolved across multiple construction sites.
Ms Reena Gupta, Advisor to the Delhi Government, committed to providing health camps for construction workers, and the Delhi government has since launched the ‘Doctors on wheels’ scheme to support mobile health camps at construction sites.
Over 470 construction workers were supported by MHT to access financial compensation of INR 5000 from the Delhi government due to bans on construction work during the peak polluting months. Social security schemes like this can’t by accessed by unregistered construction workers without a valid labour card, so MHT partnered with the Delhi Construction Workers Welfare Board to register workers in Gokulpur and they received a letter of appreciation for their contribution.