To check the spread of Covid-19, Government of India announced a stringent, three-week national lockdown on 25 March 2020 – with some easing of restrictions in subsequent phases. In this note, Suhas and Bhargav Jangle chronicle the journey of their construction firm and workers over a four-month period following the announcement.
SJ Contracts Pvt. Ltd. (SJCPL) is a Pune-based civil contracting firm. The firm has been executing an average of 600,000 square feet of built-up work per month. As has been the experience of workers and firms throughout the country, the nationwide lockdown announced on the evening of 24 March 2020 to check the spread of Covid-19, presented an unprecedented challenge for SJCPL. In this note, we present a brief account of the four-month period starting from 25 March 2020 at SJCPL – from the complete overnight ‘switch-off’ situation to trying to get our projects up and running again following the easing of lockdown restrictions.
First, it is important to understand how the system of executing construction contracts typically works. A contract to execute the work is awarded to us, the principal contractor, by the client. This is an all-inclusive contract incorporating workers, material, and equipment, and the responsibility of ensuring all statutory compliances. We, in turn, engage labour contractors to bring workers to undertake the various types of works such as that pertaining to steel, formwork carpentry, masonry, plaster, and so on, as per their skills. The contractors source suitable workers from their respective villages and deploy them on our project sites. Payments are made by the firm to the contractors, and the contractors in turn deposit wages into the bank accounts of the workers. These are basically petty contractors, who serve as ‘middlemen’ between firms and workers, and the workers normally work at their behest. The contractors operate with very low working capital and hence, heavily depend on construction firms for timely payments.
Lockdown 1.0: 25 March to 14 April 2020
Going into the lockdown, SJCPL had 15 ongoing construction projects across Pune, and a total of about 3,500 workers at these sites. All the workers were stationed in the camp accommodation provided by the firm, at the project sites. In addition, 1,250 staff engaged in other activities such as engineering, accounts, and administration, was also on the payroll.
On 25 March, all project sites including worker camps were completely sealed. As a result, the immediate challenge was arranging adequate supply of groceries and other essential items for all the workers. The respective labour contractors – whether or not they were present in town at the time – did not have to capacity to cater to the needs of the workers and ensure their well-being and so the responsibility was borne entirely by the construction firm.
In the first five days of the lockdown, we set up varied solutions across project sites for provision of essentials to the workers. At a few project sites, grocery stores were present adjacent to the project and hence it was relatively easy to procure rations. At certain other project sites, we had to look for wholesalers who could deliver groceries and essentials. While food grains could be stocked for the entire three weeks of Lockdown 1.0, vegetables needed to be arranged on a weekly basis. One way or another, we were able to provide for the workers at all project sites.
Coordinating the deliveries, unloading at the camps, and eventually distribution of the purchased goods to the workers was another challenge that we faced. Our staff that lives in guest houses close to the project sites was quite instrumental in managing these processes. These team members ventured out (the ‘curfew pass’ system had not yet been set up in the first week or so of Lockdown 1.0) to go to the sites and facilitate the proper distribution of groceries. Unfortunately, some of them even had to face the brunt of police lathis on a couple of occasions for violating the lockdown restrictions. Later, when the option to apply for curfew passes became available, things got a bit easier.
During the first two weeks of lockdown, it was also difficult to convince the workers to stay put in the camps. They did not fully grasp the gravity of the situation and the importance of the lockdown and hence, we had to deal with many instances where workers would call helplines demanding that they be allowed to go home. As a result, authorities would visit the project sites to check on the workers. Fortunately, we received good support from the authorities. They were satisfied with the measures that were being taken for the workers and they also spoke to them to reiterate the importance of not leaving the camps.
Progressing further into the Lockdown 1.0 period, certain other requirements and challenges came to light. Sanitisation of the camps and toilet blocks needed to be done. Fearing that some of the workers may have been infected prior to the lockdown, a close watch needed to be kept on the general well-being of everyone. We were able to organise a medical check of all workers in the third week, across the sites. All workers were provided with fabric face masks, hand-wash soaps, and a briefing on personal hygiene as well.
The cost of providing groceries and other essentials to the workers that was being incurred by the firm was adding up to about 3.5 million INR per week. In addition, the firm had to continue to make payments to the contractors (for paying wages to the workers) as the workers needed to keep transferring money to their families in villages for their sustenance in this period of crisis. As a result, there was a substantial outflow of cash during Lockdown 1.0, besides the fixed overheads. At the same time, no progress could be made on the client’s work on the project sites. We have heard accounts of other large contracting firms in the region that were providing similar support to the workers who were stranded at their project sites. However, some of the smaller firms may have found it more difficult to mobilise resources during lockdown and ensure sustenance of workers.
Lockdown 2.0: 15 April to 3 May 2020
The lockdown restrictions did not change much in the second phase. Hence, all activities that were being undertaken for providing groceries and other essentials to the workers continued in the same manner. There was a relative ease in sourcing of rations. Fortunately, there were no cases of Covid-19 reported across the worker camps. However, the restlessness of the workers kept increasing with every passing day.
Despite various efforts, we soon started witnessing events where groups of workers (up to about 20 at a time) would desert the camp and start walking towards the railway station. In each case the police would round them up at one or the other check point in the city and bring them back to the project site. Upon our request, the police inspectors visited the camps and spoke with the workers to convince them to stay put.
We conducted a general survey across the sites to understand how many of the workers would like to return to their native place. About 40% expressed their desire to go home, while also clearly stating that they would like to come back after a month or two and continue working on the project sites.
Lockdown 3.0 and 4.0: 4 May to 31 May 2020
Lockdown 3.0 relaxed the restrictions to some extent and allowed construction projects with workers present at the sites to resume operations, and this applied to all of our projects.
However, the 'Shramik' 1 trains also started operating in the first week of May. The police authorities began registrations of the workers who wanted to return to their villages. Unfortunately, we saw a larger number of them wanting to go home, relative to what was suggested by the survey in the previous phase of the lockdown.
Although some started working on the project sites from 4 May, a steady outflow of workers also persisted. Some others who could not get seats on the trains even chartered buses back to their villages.
As a result, by 31 May, the total number of workers had come down to about 700 across all projects, that is, almost 20% of the pre-lockdown strength. As a result, by the end of May we were forced to shut down most project sites for want of required number of workers.
At that point, we were not anticipating much in terms of a revival in business any time soon. Hence, it became essential to sensitise our employees about certain tough decisions that may have to be taken going forward. We composed a video message from the Directors' desk – giving an update on the Covid situation vis-à-vis SJ Contracts, and providing a view on how things may shape up in the near term. Eventually we were forced to effect a pay cut since the entire period of April and May saw almost zero revenue. Appropriate and timely internal communications played a vital role in building a common, positive vision of the future.
We were also left wondering why the migrant workers insisted on returning home despite the accommodation and food provisions available at the camps. Later, we discovered that it was essentially an instinctive reaction of wanting to be in their ‘home base’ and with their families in a time of crisis and uncertainty. Many workers come and work in Pune while their families are still residing in the villages. Their families were of course worried about the outbreak in large cities like Pune, Mumbai etc. Besides, some of the information being fed by the press and social media was adding to everyone’s paranoia. There was no amount of logical reasoning that could convince them otherwise. As a result, most workers returned back home at the first opportunity – even though doing so put them and potentially their families at risk.
Lockdown 5.0 and Unlock 1.0: 1 June onwards
Although many restrictions were lifted by the government from 1 June onwards, construction work did not pick up at all. This was due to the fact that most workers had left and not yet returned. Secondly, many intended to return, but only a handful of trains were operating. Finally, a large chunk of our workers belong to West Bengal and strict lockdowns were still in force there at the time.
We continued to stay in touch with labour contractors in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar, to track their whereabouts and understand when they might be able to resume sending workers to Pune. As a part of these efforts, we even sent a few persons to these states to try and meet the contractors. As a result, we were able to mobilise workers from these states in small numbers from 20 June onwards.
The challenges that we again faced here were that there were very few options of trains. Secondly, transport from the villages to the boarding railway stations such Patna was unavailable. Lastly, the sub-contractors were unwilling or unable to book tickets for the workers. To address these issues, we set up a special team of our staff (about five persons) that worked on booking train tickets for the workers and arranging transport for them from villages to the main railway stations. The team was able to facilitate the return journey of about 1,800 workers over the following few weeks.
Only one train was coming into Pune from Patna in Bihar. Some other trains were going into Mumbai and so we asked the workers to get off at Nashik or Kalyan stations and we chartered buses to bring groups of workers from these stations to Pune as they arrived. With these additional efforts, by 31 July, the number of workers on our project sites increased to about 2,000, which was 60% of the pre-lockdown strength.
Today, we are in an entirely different situation – more and more workers have joined taking the total number well above the pre-pandemic level. Our clients have mandated ramping up of the project work to make up for the lost time. Fortunately, we are also signing new contracts. In the past three months we have secured two new projects and we will be starting another one this month.
Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have indeed brought about unprecedented situations and challenges to the forefront. One of them, as discussed above, is the vulnerable situation of migrant workers engaged in informal works in urban centres away from their homes. While providing an account of our firm’s lockdown experience, we acknowledge that this would have varied significantly across firms given differential capacities, circumstances, and contexts. This points towards a pressing need for a robust social security system for informal workers.
- ‘Shramik Special’ trains were launched by the Indian Railways in May 2020 for migrant workers and others who were stranded in various places on account of the lockdown, to travel back to their native villages.
I4I is now on Telegram. Please click here (@Ideas4India) to subscribe to our channel for quick updates on our content.