Labour pain: Despite unlocking, industrial acitivities in Delhi stare at bleak future due to staff shortage

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Express News Service

Grappling with manpower shortage, factory owners say there has been hardly any activity in units even a week after Delhi government partially lifted curbs, while construction projects see little progress, reports Siddhanta Mishra.

When Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced the lockdown on April 19, initially for a week, amid the devastating second wave of Covid-19 pandemic, he appealed to thousands of migrant workers not to leave the city, stressing that the restrictions will be lifted as soon as possible.

But fearing a longer lockdown, migrants began pouring into interstate bus terminals and private bus depots in Delhi and Ghaziabad — in scenes reminiscent of the mass exodus of labourers who had gathered in thousands at Anand Vihar after the Centre announced the nationwide lockdown in March 2020.

As the situation turned grimmer, their worst fears came true the Delhi government kept on extending the lockdown every week to tackle the surge in cases.

According to the Delhi Transport Department, over eight lakh migrants left the city during the first four weeks of the shutdown. 

The trail of destruction by the pandemic has instilled fear and worry in the minds of migrant labourers, factory owners and construction workers in the national capital.

Despite the government allowing factories and construction activities to operate in the first phase of unlocking last week, many owners believe it would take at least one more month before things get a little normal.

According to them, the labour shortage would adversely impact industries that have been grappling with disrupted supply chains.

Traders and factory owners told this newspaper that there has been no significant production and economic activities in the last week.

Delhi, which is considered India’s biggest distribution hub, heavily depends on the strong and complex system of markets that become part of the supply chain.

But during the current unlockdown, which is being done in phases, markets have not been allowed to function, leading to a huge roadblock, according to factory owners.

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To extend relief to the most affected labourers and workers, Kejriwal, on May 28, announced a partial unlocking process of the city after six weeks of lockdown.  

“Currently, most migrant workers are reluctant to come back to the Capital, which had witnessed a devastating second wave in April and May, leaving thousands of people infected. Most have decided to stay back at their hometowns for at least another month and wait for the situation to get better in the national capital. Now, this is going to be a great loss as the workforce has reduced drastically. It will delay projects and increase costs,” says Amjad Hassan, general secretary of Delhi Unorganised Construction Workers Union.
                
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There are 29 industrial areas, including GT Karnal Road industrial area, Okhla, Kirti Nagar, Mayapuri, Wazirpur, Patparganj, Bawana, among others, in the national capital.

Many of these areas were created decades ago and house small to medium-level factories.

Delhi, which is not an industrial city, is known for its markets that contribute to the local economy in a major way.  

Currently, 25 major construction activities, including Pragati Maidan redevelopment, Delhi-Meerut RRTS, Narela sub-city, Delhi Metro projects and Delhi Development Authority projects, are underway with just 10-12 per cent of the workforce which stayed back in the city after the lockdown was announced. 

While announcing the unlockdown last week, the CM cautioned that it should not be the case that people escape coronavirus but die of hunger.

“We have to maintain a balance between controlling the spread of Covid-19 and allowing economic activities,” Kejriwal said. 

Praveen Khandelwal, secretary general of the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), however, says the process of unlocking has been a futile exercise since construction activities require various material such as cement, sand, iron and steel, etc. 

“Delhi is a big distribution centre where markets play a key role. The government should have consulted with the market unions and federations before taking such a decision. There is hardly any workers left in the city to work in factories. Also, any factory owner will first clear out the stock that has already been manufactured and lying in godowns. But without opening the retail markets, these products would not move further down the chain. Even the odd-even formula for markets under unlockdown-II is a poorly thought out process,” Khandelwal says.

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Some factory owners also complain of very strict conditions set up by the government that add to the costs of production.

According to the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) order, construction activities should be done within closed premises, owners of manufacturing and production units shall be responsible for ensuring strict compliance that only asymptomatic workers will be allowed at the workplace, staggering of work in business hours, Covid-appropriate behaviour shall be strictly followed by all employees, no consumption of pan, gutkha, thermal screening, handwash and sanitiser preferably with a touch-free mechanism. 

“A week is not enough to bring the manufacturing activities back on track in a city like Delhi which was so ravaged by the pandemic. The fear is still there. Thousands of migrant workers have left the city and are not willing to come back without extra incentives and assurance of security. All these issues could shoot up the cost of production. Taking about telecom equipment, manufacturing units are also facing huge difficulties despite the digital push by the government. There is no supportive infrastructure.”

“Recently, the Centre had to cancel Class XII board examinations since appearing in the online examinations were not possible for many students who don’t have basic logistics like smartphone, laptop, computer and internet services. In such times, telecom equipment should have given a push by the government, ” says N K Goyal, chairman of the Telecom Equipment Manufacturers Association of India.

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The government has said for the movement of workers, employers shall arrange e-pass and all district magistrates shall ensure random RT-PCR testing in sufficient numbers at factories.

“All our workers have returned to their villagers. We are to start our unit even a  week after the unlocking process was announced in Delhi,” said Mohamad Shahnawaz, owner of a small injection moulding unit in Sadar Bazar.

ADVISORY TO FACTORY OWNERS

  • Social distancing of workers.

  • Wearing of face masks.

  • Adequate gaps between shifts.

  • Staggered lunch breaks of staff and others.

  • No spitting.

  • No consumption of pan, gutkha, tobacco and liquor at workplace.

  • Provision of thermal screening.

  • Hand wash and sanitiser at all entry and exit points and common areas.

  • Frequent sanitisation of the entire workplace and common facilities and all points which come into human contact.

8 lakh migrants left city in buses

Between April 19 and May 14, a total of 8,07,032 migrants left Delhi in buses, out of which 3,79,604 left during the first week of the lockdown itself.

The number started declining thereon, 2,12,448 left in the second week, 1,22,490 in the third week and 92, 490 in the fourth week

Learning from the past experience of the first surge of pandemic in March 2020, when the city experienced heavy movement of migrant workers, the state transport department this time had deputed an adequate number of buses to facilitate migrant workers to reach their villages

Delhi’s labour force

  • 29 industrial areas.

  • 5 lakh estimated construction workers.

  • 25 mega construction projects.

  • I5,000 financial aid given to construction workers by Delhi govt during the pandemic.



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