What construction workers in Delhi fear the most: Another sudden lockdown

The hardest hit by COVID-19 were small contractors, employing five-six workers, mostly migrants, who fled the capital during March-May and are now hesitant to return.

Punkaj Bajaj, who retired as CEO and MD of Steel Authority of India’s Durgapur Steel Plant, thought he had all the time to finish the renovation work  of his  8th floor two bedroom apartment, in time for his son’s wedding slated for end April. Familiar with the ways of labour and  everything else that such renovation entails, Bajaj had factored in four days to break the old mosaic floor and lay new vitrified tiles in the living room of his flat built by the Ghaziabad Development Authority almost 30 years ago.

With that calculation, Bajaj got the old floor of the living room broken. But that very evening, the nation went into total lockdown. And all his workers, with their contractor, disappeared, as did tens of thousands of other migrants in the National Capital Region.

Bajaj, a widower whose two sons live and work in Mumbai, has literally been eating dust ever since. The flat’s main entrance was a temporary, unstable, lightweight plywood door. About 40 bags of cement and sand remain stacked along the walls in the drawing room. All the tools and implements of the labourers were also strewn haphazardly.

Bajaj has lived in that mess, with only the mobile phone connecting him with the labour and the carpenter who had begun the renovation work, for the next six months. Then came Unlock 1.0 in June, and Bajaj called up “Sharmaji,” who had taken Rs 38,000 as advance. But he was in Jharkhand, he told Bajaj, adding he would not want to return to Delhi by bus, and train tickets were difficult to come by.

Bajaj could not find other workers who would take on the job as labourers are scared to poach someone else’s work. After many heated exchanges and parting with some more money, on September 23rd, Bajaj managed to get Sharma to send an associate of his to finish the work. By then, the stacked cement had all solidified!

With his son’s wedding postponed, Bajaj spent most of his time in the corridors outside his flat, given the mess inside.

Workers hesitant to return

Bajaj’s plight is perhaps not an isolated one. “Around 50,000 to 80,000 old apartments in the NCR would normally be under renovation at any given time,” said property consultant Raveesh Kumar of Noida, “The last few years have seen a dip in purchase of new flats. People are converting two bed rooms into 3 or 4, redesigning to make more space or giving the flat a new look. So there will be many such works that were suspended because of COVID.”

The economic slowdown in recent years had, as it is, depressed the realty and construction sector, adversely affecting even the big real estate companies. But the hardest hit by COVID-19 were the small contractors, employing five or six workers, whose main business came from those renovating their old flats.

Many of the migrant labourers who fled the capital from end March through April-May, have not yet returned. “I was working in six houses in east Delhi and Ghaziabad, in March,” says a small contractor Hemprasad, who is now in Raipur, Chattisgarh. “It is 29 hours by train, and when I came there was just one train, and I had paid Rs 2500 rupees. I will return to Delhi only when the fear of corona goes away, and there is some permanent treatment for it.”

Just before the lockdown in March this year, there were 5,52,843 construction workers registered under the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board. They were amongst the first category of people in the unorganised sector for whom the Delhi government announced a one time compensation of Rs 5000 each, for loss of income on account of the lockdown. Sources say that only about 40,000 of them could get this cash transfer into their account. It was presumed that most of the others were itinerant labour.

Labour shortage has hit many small scale units like this lock -making factory. Pic Pramod Pushkarna

In May, the Delhi government allowed resumption of construction on condition that the labour stays at the site, but by then the small teams of the kind employed by Bajaj were back home and were hesitant to return. The Kejriwal government announced a second round of cash transfer. Bajaj’s contractor however told him there was nowhere for him to house the workers, besides complying with other quarantine requirements.

Construction apart, small manufacturing unit owners are also awaiting the return of labour who had gone back to Bihar and Eastern UP. Many small machine part manufacturers in Jhilmil industrial area in East Delhi are awaiting the return of labour to complete long pending orders.

The fear factor

Prashant, working for Vision Property dealers in Ghaziabad, has not been able to find a tenant for any of the four apartments he has in hand. “One family, who were to shift in April said now that they were working from home, they did not want to allow labourers to fix the RO, the air conditioners etc,” said Prashant. “People want to avoid workers entering their homes, and also it is difficult to find labour to complete works that are unfinished.”

A view echoed by Hemprasad who admits he is presently sitting idle at home. “I may go back, but people are still afraid of allowing workers into their homes and some RWAs don’t allow outside workers,” says Hemprasad.

Such diktats by the RWAs have emerged as an important factor in construction activity not picking up. For instance, three RWAs in Vasundhara in Delhi decided to keep labourers out of their society, saying they did not want to risk having outside workers in their premises. The president of one RWA, on condition of anonymity, said some members were pressing for a total ban on domestic workers, drivers, mechanics including electricians, plumbers etc into their premises.

But there is pressure from some homes who say that with all adults going out to work, they needed these services. A general body meeting on the second Sunday of October will decide, he said, saying these were decisions the RWAs were within their rights to take.

Hemprasad however managed to complete some of the renovation work he had taken on by deputing friends from Jhansi. But the majority that managed to reach home are scared of having to repeat that long and difficult journey home, should there be another lockdown.

No work for those who remain

The truth of what Hemprasad says can be seen on the pavement across the Mother Dairy booth on Sahni Road between Delhi and Ghaziabad. Every morning almost 200 labourers gather there waiting for customers who will give them a livelihood.

“Though the rate is less, there is less demand because of fear,” says Teni Ram, part of a team of painters. Over the last one month, he has been able to secure work on only three days. The contractor who used to hire Teni’s team has not yet returned from Bihar. Those who gather here are largely from the nearby towns of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Beginning May, the home ministry allowed resumption of construction work on condition that the labourers will have to stay at the site and the contractor would have to ensure they wore masks, sanitized hands, and  maintained physical distancing. But those conditions were for only those working on new buildings.

“We have been told work will resume very soon,” says Netram, who had been working in an apartment complex being constructed in Mayur Vihar. May to September has been a long wait for him without work, but he has not given up hope.

The up market high rise constructions in Greater Noida, however, are bustling with activity. The manager at one such site said while the number of people at the site was a third of what it was before March, they were able to get back most of their labourers because the contractor sent buses to villages in Jharkhand to bring them back.

Builders are now offering a property swap scheme to buyers in stalled projects, and providing them an option to switch to another property if they are ready to pay at least 70% of the price of the new property. Realty portal realtynxt.com reported that builders like Supertech and Bhutani were coming up with such swap schemes and brokerage firms were acting as intermediary between buyers and developers.

Though there is some construction activity behind the huge scaffoldings at Pragati Maidan where a huge redevelopment project came to a grinding halt in March, and some road work has resumed after being abandoned for the past six months, contractors say that government guidelines about reduced workforce and social distancing has halted most activity.

A recent study claimed that two out of three skilled migrant workers, a definition that would apply to construction workers, who had fled the cities want to return to work. But project managers everywhere voice the same complaint: there is a shortage of construction labour. For the workers back in their villages, the fear of a repeat of the happenings of March-May, is overpowering.

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