While the project employed over 4500 workers at its numerous sites, now only 1040 workers have stayed back; contractors are desperately trying to rope in fresh lots of labourers from north India. But will they come, and when?
As the city comes to terms with the impact of the migrant exodus, one of the worst-hit projects is the city’s largest: the construction of Pune Metro. With little activity, most of the construction sites wear a desolate look, but MahaMetro cannot be sure as to when the full workforce will return.
The departure of migrant workers in the last two months has depleted 75 per cent workforce employed at different construction sites of Pune Metro and has slowed the progress to just about 20 to 25 per cent of the usual capacity, as per MahaMetro officials.
Before the Covid-19 crisis began, various contractors had employed 4,500 workers at numerous sites, where work was going on at full speed to complete the project in time. However, as of Sunday, MahaMetro said it has only 1,040 workers left. Most of the workers who left were manual labourers and majority, who have stayed back, are technical and machine operating staff.
While a chunk of workers left immediately after the outbreak of Covid-19 and the announcement of a lockdown, others left in Shramik Special trains or by making their own arrangements in the last few weeks. Earlier, Pune Metro had asked contractors to look after workers housed at 10 camps in different parts of the city during the lockdown period.
The work resumed only in the last week of April after over a month since March 24, when the lockdown was announced. When the work restarted, there were 2,843 workers but most of them have since left for their home states.
At the Shivajinagar station site, barely 15 to 20 workers are on the job; at Agriculture College field, where underground tunnelling work commenced in December 2019 and a maintenance depot is coming up, a majority of workers have left; at Swargate, where work on a station and a tunnel is underway, the situation is no different; and near Kothrud Kachra depot, where Hill View car depot is being built, barely 20 machine operators have stayed back. The viaduct work has also suffered from residual staff taking up only minor works in the absence of workers. Labour camps also wear a deserted look with barely a few compartments of massive settlements occupied.
Hemant Sonawane, General Manager (Public Relations), Pune Metro, said, “At the moment, we have 1,040 workers with various contractors. As workers have left due to the fear of Covid-19, the works allotted to various contractors are progressing at an average capacity of 20 to 25 per cent. The Metro does not directly employ workers. They are employed by contractors through labour suppliers who, now, have activated their channels and are making an effort to bring back some workers in the first week of June.”
The Indian Express spoke to a number of workers before they left for their home states, as they lined up to register for interstate transport facilities at police stations; coughed up large sums of money to obtain medical certificates; or when they left in groups to go to the station to board Shramik Special trains back home. Most of them said they were being looked after by contractors during the lockdown, but they wished to return home due to fear of the disease and owing to anxiety among family members. Those who were not lucky enough to get a seat on Shramik Special trains paid thousands of rupees to return home in trucks to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Jharkhand.
Sumit Prasad, who worked at the site in College of Agriculture, said on May 4, he queued up at Shivajinagar police station to submit an application to return home. “I have no complaints against the Metro as they are giving us food and shelter. The work has also started. But we are feeling anxious now and want to return home. Many of us speak to our families back home through video calls. Every day, the scene is the same. We cry on this side, they on the other,” said Prasad, who is from Siwan district in Bihar.
Pune Metro workers from College of Agriculture site had made applications to go home by queuing up at Shivajinagar Police Station in the first week of May 2020. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)
Efforts on to call labourers back
Contractors are making an effort to get workers from within the state and outside. “Most of my employees were from Bihar and Jharkhand. Only some of them have stayed back as I was able to convince them. Getting workers from the state to replace those who have left is impossible. First, they too fear for their lives, and second, boys from even the poorest parts of the state are not ready to do manual labour,” said another sub-contractor.
A labour contractor said he had spoken to three labour suppliers in West Bengal, who have promised to send 50 workers each, by June 10.
According to Sonawane, a group of about 25 workers from Madhya Pradesh had conveyed to contractors, a week ago, that they are willing to return. Since there are transport restrictions, Pune Metro wrote to the administration of these districts requesting travel facilitation for these workers.
Salaries deducted, delayed
According to Pune Metro officials, it has issued instructions to all contractors to pay engaged workers full salaries for the lockdown period. Workers, who have stayed back, however, have complained that contractors have deducted a portion of the salaries and have also delayed the payment.
A number of technicians and operators said the only reason that kept them from leaving Pune was the pending salary. “If my pending salary is given to me, I will leave for home immediately,” a crane operator said, adding that the NCC, which is building viaducts on Paud Road, released salary for April only in the last week of May and, that too, was heavily deducted.
“I don’t want to return home empty-handed. If they clear my past dues, I can go home and provide for my family. If I leave now, without collecting my dues, I will have to forget about the pending money,” said the operator, who did not want to be named.