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COVID-19 second wave: construction workers leave for home; developers fear exodus may impact project completion

Realtors fear the halt in construction activity may reverse the gains in the last quarter of 2020 and that it may take almost a year to bring the situation back to normal

Migrant workers travel in crowded buses as they return to their villages. The Uttar Pradesh government on March 28 arranged over 1,000 buses for the workers returning to the state. (Image: Reuters)

Migrant workers travel in crowded buses as they return to their villages. The Uttar Pradesh government on March 28 arranged over 1,000 buses for the workers returning to the state. (Image: Reuters)

Just when it looked like the housing sector was recovering from the impact of the pandemic in 2020, a second wave has again disrupted construction activity at real estate project sites with migrant workers going back to their villages as soon as the week-long lockdown was announced in Delhi as also when restrictions were imposed in Maharashtra.

Indeed, pictures of thousands of migrant workers at interstate bus terminals and railway stations could be seen replaying across Delhi and Mumbai.

To minimize the impact, the Delhi government proposed financial assistance of Rs 5,000 to each of the construction workers registered with them. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal appealed to the migrants not to leave Delhi and assured them that the lockdown would not be extended.

In his nearly 20-minute address to the nation, his first this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also asked states to convince migrant workers - a large number of whom have begun leaving for their home states in distress following lockdowns in cities like Delhi and Mumbai - to stay put where they are, with a guarantee that they will be vaccinated in the coming days and will also not lose their livelihoods.

Some real estate developers that Moneycontrol spoke to fear construction activity may come to a halt again, reversing the gains in the last quarter of 2020 and that it may take almost a year to bring the situation back to normal.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

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Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Half the force

Labour unions confirmed to Moneycontrol that as many as two lakh construction workers have already left Delhi-NCR for their hometowns in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

“Construction workers are part of the silent population that migrates whenever there is a crisis of employment. Of the total 10 lakh construction workers in Delhi-NCR, as many as five lakh are considering going back of which two lakh may have already migrated,” Siddheshwar Shukla, CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) Delhi state secretary, told Moneycontrol.

Besides, much before the lockdown was imposed in the Capital, some construction workers had already left town for the harvest season. Some workers who had left for Holi festivities have not returned due to fear of cases rising in cities.

“There may be less panic as workers are better prepared to leave this time around but the level of migration is the same as last year. Of the 10 lakh construction workers in Delhi-NCR, two lakh had already left and another three lakh may be prepared to leave. However, the remaining five lakh may not leave as they may have a permanent house in Delhi-NCR,” Shukla said.

This would mean that construction sites would have to do with roughly half the regular labour until the situation improves, he added.

Shukla has also written to Manish Sisodia, labour minister, government of Delhi, apprising him of the problem of reverse migration in the city. “Once again migration of unorganised sector workers has begun. This large section of population doesn't have an Aadhar card with a Delhi address and therefore they are not eligible for any schemes announced by the government. The government must provide Rs 10,000 as Covid-19 relief to all unorganised sector workers,” the letter said.

Ramswarath, general secretary of the Bhawan Nirman Mazdoor Union, Noida region, also told Moneycontrol that thousands of construction workers had left town. “How are they expected to survive in cities? Most of them are hired on daily wages from labour chowks near construction sites and are not entitled to incentives given by the government,” he said.

Pravesh, a construction worker and a union leader from Bawana in Delhi, also told Moneycontrol that almost 25% of workers had left their jhuggis in north-west Delhi after the six-day lockdown was announced. “Their fear is that they may not die of corona but may surely die of hunger,” he told Moneycontrol.

Jabs for recovery

Builders are worried that the labour situation may lead to project delays, too. “If 500 to 1,000 workers were deployed before Covid, right now we are working at almost half the capacity. The problem of material shortage is also building up,” said Prashant Tiwari, chairman, Prateek Group.

Tiwari added that the situation may turn out to be worse than last year. “No buyers are visiting sites and the house buying sentiment is low. Project delays will depend on the duration of the problem. Last time, it took almost a year for the situation to normalize. We fear it may take another year this time,” he said.

Pradeep Aggarwal, chairman, Signature Global is more optimistic. “In Haryana there is only a 10-15% shortage of labour. There is no panic yet. We are also putting in place a vaccination plan for our construction workers, majority of whom are below 45 years,” he told Moneycontrol.

“This time we have appealed to the government that it would be in everyone’s interest to ensure that construction and the supply chain is not halted. We have assured the government that we are ready to take all precautions, even if that means working at just 70-80% capacity,” Aggarwal added.

The Confederation of Real Estate Developers' Association of India (CREDAI) has announced it will provide free vaccination to over 2.5 crore construction workers at the sites of its over 13,000 developer members across 217 Indian cities and towns.

Lockdown-like restrictions

The situation is no different in Mumbai. Given the fresh restrictions in Mumbai and Pune, the Maharashtra government has said that construction will only be allowed at sites with residential facilities for workers. Movement from the sites will also be restricted, except for transporting construction material.

It is for this reason that almost 30-40% project sites are operational in Mumbai and Pune. But if lockdown rules are intensified, even raw material supply be may get effected, said a Mumbai-based developer.

As many as one lakh construction workers are employed in real estate projects in Maharashtra, primarily Mumbai and Pune. A majority of them are migrants, said M.H. Shaik, head of the Maharashtra chapter of the Construction Workers Federation of India.

“Lockdown is currently on in Maharashtra, Rs 1,500 relief has been announced for all registered construction workers but only a few workers would be able to avail the benefit as very few are registered. Several workers have already left for their hometowns,” he said.

Real estate developers have stepped forward to help local authorities with a slew of measures, to provide necessary medical and infrastructure aid to combat the spread of the second wave of Covid-19.

“As PMO has ruled out the complete lockdown situation and (Maharashtra) state government’s calibrated approach to permit in-situ workers to continue work, has assured developers of unhindered production,” said Niranjan Hiranandani, president, National Real Estate Development Council (NAREDCO). “The construction workers on site are looked after in terms of food, shelter and wages, and now will be eligible for vaccination shots below 45 years of age. Most of the developers are managing around 90% of the workers at the site and balance 10% must have witnessed migration due to the annual harvest season. Also, the uninterrupted raw material supply assures continuous production which means no delays at the moment in home delivery,” he added.

The real estate sector in Maharashtra employs about one lakh construction workers, most of them migrants. The real estate sector in Maharashtra employs about one lakh construction workers, mostly migrants. (Photo by Abhinav Varshney via Wikimedia Commons CC by SA).

Build and assist

A survey of 84 developers conducted by CREDAI-MCHI showed that there is not much reverse migration this year so far. It showed that there were 36,000 employers working across the construction sites of the 84 developers and only 2,100 workers had left after the government imposed its restrictions, even as 4,800 migrant workers joined these construction sites over the past two months.

“Most developers who participated in the survey said the trend is similar to every year when workers return to their hometowns after Holi,” a developer said.

CREDAI-MCHI has also converted a few commercial properties into Covid centres and is cooperating with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). Developer Rustomjee, for example, has set up a 150-bed facility at its Rustomjee International School in Dahisar suburb of Mumbai. Shree Naman Group has set up a 120-bed facility at the Nehru Science Centre in Worli, while Ajmera Group has set up a 40-bed facility at its Times Square Commercial Complex in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb.

“The second wave of Covid-19 has been extremely severe with an unprecedented number of cases which has taken an excessive load on MMR’s (Mumbai Metropolitan Region's) public health infrastructure. Comprehending the gravity of the situation, leading MCHI developers have joined hands with the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation; now MCGM) and are contributing to the government’s cause and measures to fight the pandemic,” said Deepak Goradia, president, CREDAI-MCHI. “Till now, we have provided space and infrastructure for over 330 beds while we anticipate more developers to join this movement in the near future.”

Vandana Ramnani
Vandana Ramnani
first published: Apr 29, 2021 06:25 pm