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Kerala pay too irresistible for Bengal

New Delhi, Oct. 3: Occasional communist cousin Kerala is luring away Bengal’s youths not because of ideological affinity but because of pure market forces.

The National Buildings Organisation (NBO) has collated figures that confirm why so many able-bodied men from Bengal have been travelling thousands of kilometres to Kerala in search of work: a yawning gap between the wages in the two states.

Kerala capital Thiruvananthapuram pays masons the most: Rs 469 a day, according to a study released by the NBO, a department under the housing and urban poverty alleviation ministry. In Calcutta, masons got Rs 193 a day for their toil, said the report that compiled data for 2010. (See chart)

The study, which covered key cities across the country, clarified that the figures were representative and an “average” of what construction workers were paid in each city.

Two weeks ago, The Telegraph had reported that an unskilled migrant labourer in Kerala can earn up to Rs 350 a day after a Rs 50 cut for his agent. Labourers hailing from the southern state earn as much as Rs 500 for the same job.

The Bengal capital, where the Left ruled for over three decades before being voted out last year, has escaped the ignominy of being the worst paymaster. That dubious crown goes to Kanpur, the industrial capital of Uttar Pradesh, where a mason earns Rs 174 a day, according to the study.

“We came up with these reports because a regular flow of reliable data on housing conditions has assumed significance especially for planning in this sector,” NBO director D.S. Negi said.

But why such a gulf of difference in wage scales?

Analysts say there could be several factors, including Kerala’s construction boom and, of course, the Gulf. The Gulf has been a decisive and durable factor in Kerala, known for swinging between the communists and the Congress every five years.

“Labour wages in Kerala have been pushed up because of market forces. A huge number of skilled labourers have gone to Gulf countries, which created a scarcity. The money sent from the Gulf has boosted the construction industry. With high demand, the wages naturally increased,” said development economist K.P. Kannan.

Bengal, where successive governments have failed to create conditions for attracting investment, has done its bit too, forcing hundreds to migrate elsewhere because of lack of jobs.

Kannan, however, said it was difficult to explain why wages were so low in Bengal. “Traditionally, we have seen Bihar has had the lowest wages in the country which forced its workforce to migrate in huge numbers. The best paymasters were Haryana and Punjab till two decades back, now of course Kerala has overtaken these states.”

Devanjan Chakravarty, general secretary of the Construction Workers Federation of India, said average labour wages in a state depended on its economy. “Kerala, which is flush with Gulf money, can afford to pay masons Rs 500 per day. Bengal does not have that kind of purchasing power. Also, Kerala is the only state that has a law for protecting migrant workers and have a welfare fund for them.”

No official estimates are available on the number of migrant workers in Kerala. “Industry sources claim that at present 10 lakh migrant workers are employed in Kerala, although it will be difficult to give an estimate of how many are from states like Bengal or Bihar,” Kannan said.

Wages for construction workers may be low in Calcutta, but that does not mean you can get your house built cheap. Bengal, the study says, is one of the states where construction materials like bricks and cement are the costliest.

A thousand bricks cost Rs 5,850 in Calcutta, next only to Meghalaya capital Shillong where the rate is Rs 6,625 per thousand. As for cement prices, Bengal is third highest on the list after Jammu and Kashmir and Assam.

According to official estimates, building materials account for 67 per cent of the cost of constructing residential and non-residential structures in India. Labour costs account for the remaining 33 per cent.

Masons are not the only ones who are poorly paid in Calcutta; carpenters, too, take home Rs 193 after a hard day’s toil in the city, which shares the status of being the lowest paymaster with Meerut for this segment.

Thiruvananthapuram tops the chart again, paying Rs 500 as daily wage. Tech-city Bangalore follows closely, with Rs 473 a day.

Even an unskilled male labourer gets Rs 369 a day in Thiruvananthapuram. The rate in Calcutta is Rs 156. The highest daily pay for unskilled female labourers was recorded at Rs 319 and Rs 300 in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode. The figure for Calcutta was Rs 148.