Construction stalled in Mumbai: Sops galore to bring back labourers
Airline tickets, higher wages, medical insurance, weekly doctor visits -- these are some of the perks Mumbai’s real estate companies are offering -- not to senior executives but to the hundreds of thousands of construction workers who left the city in the aftermath of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak and the ensuing lockdown.
The sops are meant to entice back the workers who returned home to states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha so that construction can resume on projects that are stuck for lack of labour.
According to the Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry, the apex industry body in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), close to 700,000 of the 900,000 on-site real estate workforce returned to their home towns after as Mumbai emerged as the country’s worst-affected Covid-19 hot spot in April.
“There are hardly 200,000 on-site workers left in Mumbai, and a majority of the projects are in limbo. We desperately need to start work and hence we are trying all means possible to bring them back,” said Rajesh Prajapati, managing committee member of the chamber.
“The workers are not ready to come back fearing infection and due to family pressure. We are assuring them that we will take good care of them, and offer them best of the facilities such as Covid-19 insurance as well as weekly visits by doctors.”
On June 8, the Maharashtra government allowed private construction activity to restart, but builders said they have been facing an acute shortage of workers, and that they are left with no option but to try and tempt them back with flight tickets, enhanced wages, boarding facilities and medical insurance, in addition to weekly medical check-ups.
The Avighna Group – best known for constructing high-rises in the erstwhile mills cluster in central Mumbai – arranged flight tickets for 88 workers from West Bengal for its new project in south Mumbai’s Worli area. “Work is delayed by six months due to the pandemic, and we cannot afford more setbacks. This forced us to arrange flight tickets as well as offer 25% extra wages for our workers,” said Nishant Agrawal, managing director, Avighna Group.
He said Avighna spent Rs 9 lakh to transport them from West Bengal to Mumbai.
Asif Khan, 25, who belongs to Bagdogra in West Bengal, was one of the workers brought to Mumbai by Avighna Group. He travelled by a Bagdogra-Mumbai flight on June 22.
“Our place witnessed floods and there was hardly any work there. The builder arranged flight tickets and assured us he will look after our safety. Hence we returned back to work,” said Khan.
Real estate executives say they have appointed independent contractors who are scouting for skilled construction workers in Uttar Pradesh and eastern Indian states that have been traditional sources of construction labour.
Real estate consultancy Liases Foras warned that the sector will confront a long-term crisis if work does not start soon on stuck projects.
“The disbursement of money by the banks to companies and to home buyers is construction-linked (according to the stage of the project) and hence builders will not get money till work is started and there is progress in the project. Delays will make projects unviable,” said Pankaj Kapoor, CEO, Liases Foras.
The firm estimates that there are at least 4,500 ongoing projects in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, of which less than 40% have restarted after the June 8 notification. “Here also, the work has not started in full swing and is progressing slowly,” Kapoor said.
Take Shraddha Lifescapes. This construction firm, which started its Jogeshwari (in north-west Mumbai) project just before the March lockdown, has sent contractors to scout for workers in states like West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.
“Our project is delayed by at least a year, and if we don’t get workers fast, it will be delayed further,” said Bhavesh Sanghrajka, CEO of Shraddha Lifescapes, which has constructed projects in places like IC Colony in Borivli in north Mumbai and Jogeshwari, and is offering higher wages to bring back workers.
The National Real Estate Development Council (Naredco), however, estimates that migration of workers back to the cities has started, and more labour will return within the next three months.
“There is no work in the villages and hence we are seeing a healthy reverse migration. We estimate that all construction workers will return by Diwali (November),” said Rajan Bandelkar, president, Naredco (Maharashtra).
Niranjan Hiranandani, co-founder and managing director of real estate company Hiranandani Group, said the process of the workforce returning to Mumbai has started.
“They are attracted to Mumbai as it gives them employment and they will return,” he said. “Things will normalise in the coming months as people are realising that they need to live with this virus. Those who have gone are talking to other labourers, and the response has been positive.”