Escape for survival, but no easy return to livelihoods
PUNE A daily gathering of workers under the flyover in Warje in the early months of 2021, is a sign that the construction industry is making an effort to revive itself.
The lack of jobs coming their way was a sign of a struggle the industry faced during one of the most stringent lockdowns in the summer of 2020.
Hundreds arrive at the “majdoor adda” (place to hire daily wage labourers), and live the story that started differently for most, but ended similarly for all labourers - with unemployment.
If the lockdown prompted over 0.2 million migrant workers to leave the city, many returned within months, as the unlocking process began and various sectors including real estate and manufacturing started to return to normal.
In October 2020, the estimate of the work force in the real estate sector in Pune was 75,500 workers, based on a number provided by Credai, a body representing real estate developers.
Credai now estimates that 60% of the workforce has returned to construction sites with a count of 45,000 workers.
According to a monthly survey for February released by MCCIA, number of employees working in micro, small, medium and large scale organisations in 100 firms in Pune district has moved up to 86%, while their production level has increased to 85%.
Construction labourers formed a major portion of the lakhs of migrant labourers who were sent in special trains and privately organised buses from Pune with the help of the district administration and police.
The families who lived in shanties of Gurunanak nagar atop a hill in Katraj were among those who experienced the turmoil of it all.
They tried to leave in the dark of the day on foot, but were caught and sent back, forced to survive on rice plates amid a scarcity of water.
There was no way of knowing when work would begin, the coffers of daily wage labourers were empty, and children cried constantly due to hunger.
Almost a year later, in February 2021, the sight of cheer in the same locality filled the air, even as it has a shade of anxiety about another possible lockdown, after administration imposed restrictions in city.
A visit to the labour camp in Katraj was a different experience in 2020 compared to February 2021.
One-year-old Priyanka was oblivious to the financial and social stress her mother endured during the lockdown as their colony was situationally denied access to basic necessities like food, milk, and water.
Malan Manik Jadhav (20), the baby’s mother, was happy to report in February that they were finally getting water to clean utensils and drink, but were struggling with food grains.
“The situation has improved so much since the last time we met. So I feel afraid to even complain, but the food grains are running out. There is work now, but it is not as much as it used to be,” said Jadhav.
The lockdown put multiple people out of employment - some were forced out of their chosen professions.
A bouncer, a student of Science, a factory worker - all gathered in a space where they were left at the mercy of a labour contractor who failed to show up on more days than he did arrive.
While all their life stories were wildly different from each other, essentially the problem remains the same: work has begun, but it is nearly not as much as it used to be.
The Warje workers naka is a melting pot of hundreds of life stories.
“I used to work as a bouncer after my graduation. I worked there for almost one year and then the lockdown happened. Work came to a complete standstill. A few months later when it began, the company started paying a laughable amount of salary or no salary at all. So I quit that job and now I come here looking for work,” said the bouncer, requesting anonymity.
While the bouncer got the opportunity to complete his graduation with the funds that his road-side vegetable vendor parents could gather, there were others in the crowd who are not that fortunate.
“My family is in Osmanabad and I come here for work which pursuing my second year in BSc from Latur University. I do not know what this past year would even mean academically. I know I cannot stop coming to work,” said Sachin Rathod (20), standing with his friends.
After being asked questions about his education, the early morning furor was replaced by contemplation about his exam that is scheduled to commence on March 8, according to him.
At a slight distance away from the young crowd stands Virappan Hanmant Manjulkar (53), a native of Bengaluru, who appeared distraught and cynical at the same time. He claims to have graduated from Raichur University with a BA in the 1980s.
“My wife has been in the mental hospital for the past 14 years. We have daughter who is married. I do not know how the graduation helped me. I came here from Raichur looking for work and have been doing random jobs ever since,” said Manjulkar.
According to Shailendra Pol, additional labour commissioner of Pune region, the department had taken every precaution to facilitate the return of workers during the last year. “We immediately started centres and released these phone numbers in the known labour circles and then the labourers started contacting us with their location and requirements. We collected the problems and connected them with local BDOs or the district collector’s office and tried to take care of their food and accommodation. The labour did not have any fund for such a huge operation. Therefore, NGOs were roped in and their help sustained the process. But at some point, most of them started moving on foot,” said Pol.
“When the lockdown happened, Credai Pune collected ₹80 lakh and distributed food . When the government action started, the workers started leaving. I can guess that 40,000-45,000 workers have come back to the sites although this cannot be stated officially. We started a training course for workers from Solpaur, Kolhapur, Parbhani, for shuttering, carpentry, and mason work and promised a ₹10,000 payment, but surprisingly, not many came. We organised a competition among Credai Pune members to come up with ways to improve lives of these workers - major changes were made,” said Suhas Merchant, president of Credai.