Delhi’s infrastructure projects hit hard by labour migration
Slated for completion in March this year, the flyover projects in Shastri Park and Seelampur would have put an end to the traffic woes of lakhs of people living in the trans-Yamuna area.
But the wait for “seamless connectivity” between northeast and east Delhi—the two projects, worth ₹303 crore in total, are part of the Delhi government’s plan to decongest east Delhi—has now become longer.
While traffic is back on GT Road, on which the two projects are planned, work on the sites is moving at a snail’s pace. According to the Delhi government’s Public Works Department (PWD) officials, the number of workers at both the sites has dropped from 300 to just 100-120 since the lockdown was announced in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
Residents of northeast Delhi, who were eagerly awaiting the inauguration of these flyovers, are disappointed. Aftab Ahmad, a resident of Jafrabad, said, “The stretch is riddled with bottlenecks and traffic jams are routine. The projects have constantly been getting delayed for one reason or another—be it riots or lockdown,” Ahmad said.
All major infrastructure projects in Delhi are in the same boat. Reverse migration and the uncertainty over the migrants’ return has adversely impacted the timeline of infrastructure projects, such as India Trade Promotion Organisation’s (ITPO) Pragati Maidan redevelopment project, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation’s Phase-4 project, the Barapullah Phase-3 project, etc.
Despite the Delhi government allowing construction work to resume in May, the agencies involved are struggling to get labour.
With just 10-15% work remaining at the two flyovers, PWD officials said they were trying to arrange additional labourers and hoped to complete the work by July this year, the new deadline for the projects. “This project is a priority for the Delhi government. The pace is slow because of the shortage of labour,” a PWD official said, requesting anonymity.
According to officials of the Delhi government, the exact number of migrants who have left the city is unknown as many walked and cycled back to their home states during the initial days of the lockdown. A total of 450,000 migrants had applied on the government’s portal to be sent back home. The Delhi government sent 310,000 of them back home to 16 states in 237 special trains. Of the remaining workers, some decided to stay back when lockdown norms were eased, and the government is making efforts to send the others back home via buses.
According to various government agencies, most construction workers in Delhi belong to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand. Government agencies involved in five major infrastructure projects in Delhi said that the strength of this workforce has dropped by 50-75%, resulting in delays.
At the Pragati Maidan redevelopment site, the number of workers has dropped from 3,800 to 350-400 since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, LC Goyal, chairman and managing director, ITPO, said. “We are making all efforts to re-mobilise labour so that construction work can start while ensuring social distancing and other norms at the site. We are revising the timelines,” he said. The ₹2,700 crore project was slated for completion in March 2021.
A major part of the ITPO redevelopment project is the ₹777 crore traffic regulation project, which is being carried out by the Delhi PWD. The construction of a 1.2-km-long tunnel between Purana Qila Road (near Pragati Maidan Mathura Road) and the Ring Road (near Pragati Power Station), and the construction of six underground U-turns on Mathura Road and Bhairon Marg are part of the project.
Once the project is complete, motorists travelling from Noida, Ghaziabad and south and east Delhi will have signal-free access to India Gate and Mathura Road, and vice versa.
The tunnel, PWD officials said, was to be completed by June this year. “Earlier, there were nearly 600 labourers engaged in construction work, but now there are only 320. It is certain that the June deadline will be extended by a few months as around 30% of the work is still pending,” one of the officials said, requesting anonymity.
But this is not the first time that construction work has stalled for a considerable duration in the city. Work was affected in November last year when construction activity was banned because of a rise in the pollution levels.
“We could work during the day in December, but the government lifted the ban on construction activity at night only in February this year. This adversely impacted the pace of construction work. There was a similar situation in 2018-19 when work had to be stopped during the peak pollution season,” Goyal said.
The biggest challenge that construction firms and contractors are facing is getting labour back. Shapoorji Pallonji E&C, which is involved in several construction projects in the National Capital Region (including ITPO’s Pragati Maidan), said that before the lockdown on March 25, they employed 10,000 construction workers across the Delhi-NCR.
“Depending on the volume of work, the number of workers at each project site ranged from 150 to nearly 4,000. Currently, we are left with only 15% to 20% of the original workforce strength,” a spokesperson of Shapoorji Pallonji E&C said.
At all major infrastructure project sites, construction firms are making arrangements for labourers’ boarding and lodging. “Although organised players like us were taking care of these workers by providing them with wages, rations and medical facilities both before and during the lockdown, there was growing anxiety among the workers with news of the lockdown getting extended,” the spokesperson added.
A labour contractor said, “People were getting restless and wanted to go back. A total of 150 people were working under me before the lockdown at the ITPO site, but just 10-15 of them stayed back. Once the special trains started operating, all the migrant labourers wanted to leave. It is difficult to arrange for labourers now.”
The DMRC, which had started construction work on its Phase-4 in December last year after a delay of nearly three years, confirmed that the pace of work had slowed due to the reverse migration of the labour force.
According to officials of DMRC, work had started at the Haiderpur Badli Mor Metro station (part of Janakpuri West-RK Ashram corridor). They had made arrangements there for the workers to stay. “Before the lockdown, DMRC employed about 3,500 workers. Presently, the number varies between 1,000 and 1,500. However, we are continuing work with the remaining workforce but the pace of work is suffering. The deadlines will have to be modified accordingly,” Anuj Dayal, executive director, corporate communications, DMRC, said.
Government agencies have now asked contractors to make arrangements to mobilise labour. But a sub-contractor working with a government firm, requesting anonymity, said, “It is difficult to get labour. We are trying to source it from nearby areas. But due to the border restrictions, it is difficult to meet the demand.”
PWD officials said that the contractors have started arranging some labour from nearby areas, but they are mostly unskilled people. At PWD’s Barapullah Phase-3 project, which connects Ring Road with the UP Link Road near Mayur Vihar Phase -1, a PWD official said, “Earlier nearly 500-600 labourers used to work at the site, depending upon the requirement. But currently, only 300 labourers are available. This has severely reduced the pace of the work,” the official said.
With a large percentage of the migrant workforce gone from the Capital, it is difficult to say when it will return, Sachidanand Sinha, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said.
“They will return for sure as there is not much work available in their home states. Moreover, this is a lean period in agricultural activity. People will need money and will return to cities to earn their livelihood, but it is difficult to say how long it will take. If states like UP, Bihar and Rajasthan (from where most migrants are) provide them with more employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), then it could delay their return to cities,” Sinha said.