Second Covid wave: Govt's decision to carry on with infra projects & its impact on thousands of workers


In a column in ET on May 10, 2020, the chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, Bibek Debroy, fell back on Greek mythology and explained how Odysseus, the hero, decided to sail closer to the sea beast Scylla and lose a few sailors rather than sacrifice the entire ship by drifting towards the monstrous whirlpool Charybdis. When Debroy wrote the piece last year, the government had just lifted a stringent nationwide lockdown and was in the horns of a dilemma — how much to unlock in the face of two evils, the Covid-19 pandemic (Scylla) and an economic disaster that could result in a massive loss of livelihood (Charybdis) due to a prolonged shutdown.

A year later, as the second wave of the pandemic sweeps across the nation, the government has remained firm on one count. It has decided to carry on with infrastructure projects in the midst of micro lockdowns and curfews across the country — even though it has meant risking the spread of the novel coronavirus at project sites as well as a rise in deaths. The government has chosen to confront Scylla, the pandemic, and avoid the other monster of large-scale mass migrations, loss of livelihoods and widespread hunger.


Occupation’s hazards


During the second surge, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), for example, has continued with all its 480 projects — worth Rs 5.1 lakh crore and covering a length of 25,000 km — even when there was a 20-25% drop in labour availability between March 31 and May 23, its chairman, Dr Sukhbir Singh Sandhu, told ET.

Similarly, Indian Railways has carried on with its regular construction work and key projects. Work on the dedicated freight corridors has continued with 50% workforce (the number fell from 29,700 on March 31 to 15,300 on May 8, for which data is available).

At the peak of the pandemic, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) also continued constructing its priority corridors approved under Phase 4 with just 2,900 workers, down from 4,100 since a complete lockdown was imposed in the national capital on April 19. According to a DMRC spokesperson, many labourers who went to meet their families during Holi (March 29) have yet to return to work. Also, in the heart of New Delhi, construction work continues at a project in the spotlight— the Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista redevelopment that envisages a new central secretariat, a parliament building and a residence for the prime minister, all by 2024, along the 3-km long Rajpath radiating from Raisina Hill.

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The decision to not halt any of these flagship projects, or the many smaller ones, at the peak of the crisis has helped fortify the Indian economy, something that will be reflected only in the next round of macro numbers — gross domestic product (GDP) growth for Q1, tax collections, freight movements, consumption of commodities such as cement and steel as well as employment.

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But this could well be a pyrrhic victory. India may have tried to win its economic battle during the second wave, saving the livelihoods of millions who are directly or indirectly engaged in core sectors, but it has come at a heavy human cost. Since April 1 when the virus and its variants spread aggressively, thousands of workers have fallen sick at project sites, and many have died.

“A lot of our own officials as well as those from the contractors’ side have been infected by Covid-19. Also, the dwindling number of workers at the sites has been a challenge for us. We have, however, tried our best to keep our morale high,” DMRC managing director Mangu Singh told ET.

NHAI Chairman Sandhu also echoes similar sentiments, narrating the difficult situation they were in, at least till recently “The second wave of Covid-19 has been very difficult for the country. Some of the NHAI employees have also been diagnosed Covid-positive and we lost five of our officers to the pandemic,” he says, adding that the peak appears to be over. On May 2, 4,884 workers deployed at NHAI sites by various private contractors were found to be Covid-positive, a number that dwindled to 2,580, a 48% drop, as on May 23, according to NHAI data.

In one of the railways’ flagship projects under construction — the dedicated freight corridors — the second wave of the pandemic took 22 lives, with 1,576 active cases and 761 recovered patients as on May 9, according to data previewed by ET. Those who died include a project director and a construction manager in its Noida segment, a blast hopper contractor, a cook and a security guard, all in Mughalsarai, a tract consultant in Vadodara and a bridge engineer in Surat, just to name a few.

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In an email reply to ET’s queries, Ravindra Kumar Jain, managing director of the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India (DFCCIL), says the total Covid cases till May 1 were 1,397 with 15 deaths, clarifying that the cases pertained to DFCCIL officials, project management consultants and employees of project partners. The company, he says, is now adopting a bio-bubble — a secure environment where only Covidnegative workers reside and work, with no interface with outsiders.

ET spoke with families of two Covid victims — Nitesh Kumar Doshi, 36, who worked as an accountant at Vishal Nirmiti Pvt Ltd, a company that manufactures railway sleepers, and Rajesh Vishwakarma, 40, a bridge engineer with Oriental Consultants India, a Japanese consultancy that works for the DFCCIL.

Says Vishwakarma’s nephew Rahul Kumar: “My mama (maternal uncle) was visiting the site at Kamrej (30 km from Surat) when he tested Covid-positive. He was first admitted to a private hospital and then, when he was critical, we somehow shifted him to Surat’s civil hospital. He died on duty.” Kumar also claims that no one is talking about compensation to the family: “My aunt is a homemaker. They have three small children. How will the family survive?” Vishwakarma died on April 16, a week after he had tested positive.

The story of Doshi is similar to that of thousands of Indians across cities who died after a frantic hunt for oxygen and ventilators. “For me, Nitesh was like my son. After he tested positive, he had fever and cough. He was first in home isolation. Suddenly, he developed difficulty breathing,” says his elder brother Manish Doshi, who performed his last rites in Gujarat’s Mehsana. “Had he got a hospital bed with a ventilator, he would have possibly survived. We made a last-ditch effort to shift him to Ahmedabad, but by then, he had died,” he laments. Doshi leaves behind his wife, Madhu, and a six-month-old son, Kavish.

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Many such heart-wrenching stories will surface once the government departments release data on Covid deaths. Many agencies have refused to update the official Covid numbers. “Since it is an extremely dynamic scenario, it would be difficult to share the figures (of Covid-positives and deaths) at this stage,” DMRC spokesperson replied to a query, adding that the company is ensuring that its contractors are providing proper accommodation, food and medical care to the workforce.

Sandhu of NHAI adds that all site officers, contractors and concessionaires have been asked to follow Covid protocol and get the maximum number of workforce vaccinated at the earliest. “We have also increased the life insurance cover for NHAI officials from `5 lakh to `20 lakh,” he says.

Meanwhile, engineering and construction firm Larsen and Toubro has announced an optional insurance of Rs 35 lakh, covering Covid-19, for employees in addition to the company’s group term-life insurance policy with a coverage of Rs 50-60 lakh per employee. With the overall Covid situation in India marginally improving, at least for now and in terms of daily new cases — from over 4 lakh a day in the first week of May to less than 2 lakh now — the focus of the infrastructure companies could shift towards getting back the migrant labourers and rescheduling project deadlines. “We are continuing our efforts to bring back some of our workforce who have migrated. We have made several arrangements, including train reservations and bookings as well as arranging buses, to get them back,” says DFCCIL’s Jain, adding that the target of completing 2,800 km of the corridors by June 2022 remains untouched. “There could be minor changes in the midterm milestones,” he adds.

What about the deadline of the ongoing phase of Delhi Metro? “It is too premature to talk about the impact on deadline since the second wave of the pandemic is still going on,” says managing director Singh. Maybe, we have to wait a little longer to see the tweaking of deadlines for many key core sector projects.



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