MUMBAI • Spurning free air tickets, accommodation and higher pay, millions of migrant workers who fled India’s cities when the coronavirus hit are too scared to return, with grim implications for the already crumbling economy.
Migrant labourers form the backbone of Asia’s third-largest economy, toiling in every sector from making consumer goods to stitching garments to driving cabs.
But when India went into lockdown in late March, vast numbers lost their jobs, prompting a huge, heart-rending exodus back to their home villages, sometimes on foot, their children in their arms.
Some died on the way.
Mumbai’s swanky high-rises, for example, were built and largely staffed by people from poorer states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha, who worked as security guards, cooks and cleaners.
But as the city became a virus hot spot, around 80 per cent of construction workers left the financial hub after work came to a standstill, according to the Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry.
Four months on, with lockdown measures eased, some workers have trickled back, but more than 10,000 building sites are lying virtually abandoned due to severe labour shortages across the city.
“We are trying our best to bring back migrant workers, even going to the extent of giving them air tickets, Covid-19 health insurance… (and) weekly check-ups by doctors,” said real estate developer Rajesh Prajapati. “But it has not reaped any positive signs yet.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a public address yesterday that India needs to be “extra vigilant” as the coronavirus threat persists. This was even as the country registered a record number of patient recoveries in a day.
The Indian government said yesterday that 36,145 patients had recovered and been discharged in the last 24 hours, marking a record number of single-day recoveries.
“The danger of corona is far from being over. At many places, it is spreading fast,” Mr Modi said. “We need to be extra vigilant.”
TO NO AVAIL
We are trying our best to bring back migrant workers, even going to the extent of giving them air tickets, Covid-19 health insurance… (and) weekly check-ups by doctors. But it has not reaped any positive signs yet.
REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER RAJESH PRAJAPATI, on attempts to get migrant workers to return to Mumbai.
Property giant Hiranandani Group, which – unusually – continued to pay its workers during the lockdown, has had more success, but has still managed to convince only around 30 per cent of its 4,500 workers to stay on site.
The group’s billionaire co-founder Niranjan Hiranandani told Agence France-Presse: “We looked after them, took care of their food, safety and sanitisation and even had mobile creches for kids.”
With a colossal slump in growth expected, Mr Modi’s government has steadily eased curbs on many businesses even as coronavirus cases surge towards 1.5 million.
But analysts say firms are still staring at a bleak future due to battered finances, stalled projects and, crucially, a lack of workers.
Real estate demand has plummeted by almost 90 per cent in Mumbai alone, with falling sales and the lull in construction severely affecting access to credit.
“We have a double whammy with the pandemic eroding demand while construction workers are not available,” Mr Pankaj Kapoor, chief executive of Mumbai-based consultancy Liases Foras, told AFP.
“Credit flow from the lender has (also) stopped because… credit disbursal is based on construction progress and sales,” he added, projecting the turmoil to deepen.
Business owners in other fields paint an equally grim picture.
Mr Aseem Kumar, general-secretary of the Garment Exporters Association of Rajasthan, said his sector was “in a mess”. The organisation represents 300 manufacturers exporting clothing to Japan, the United States and Europe. Many have offered workers accommodation, insurance and a 20 per cent pay rise, but to little avail.
“Most of the orders have been deferred to next season as there are no labourers available,” he said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS