COVID-19 Lockdown Leaves Workers Jobless in Bhopal, Wages Slashed, Cost of Construction Surges
Bhopal: Since the beginning of the ‘Unlock 1’ phase, Roshan, a mason, has been waking up at dawn every day. Carrying chapatis and a water bottle with him, he rushes to the Ashoka Garden Square on a bicycle in search of work.
Squatting at the corner of a shop, the 35-year-old smokes bidi, waiting to be hired. Jobless for the last couple of months, his savings have also dried up during the lockdown. Now, he desperately needs work to feed his family. Just like him, dozens of others skilled and unskilled labourers gather at the square daily, seeking work.
When any vehicle slows down to stop at the square, he rushes towards it to find out if work is being offered. However, on this particular day, it has been three hours since he came, but no one has hired him. “Some other day,” he murmurs as he opens the packet of chapatis and begins to eat. This is the third day he will be returning home empty-handed at noon. “You can’t miss a day. No one knows when the work comes your way,” says Roshan.
The situation is more or less the same at the Jinsi square, the busiest place in the state capital. Hundreds of masons, electricians, plumbers, welders, painters and labourers gather here every day in search of work.
Throughout the morning, every two-wheeler or construction vehicle that stops at the square raises their hopes of getting hired. But from among the large groups of crowding workers, private contractors pick only two-three people, who are ready to work for the lowest wage and for the longest hours.
“Before the lockdown, we found work at least five days a week,” says Mukesh Ahirwar, a construction worker. “But now it’s just once a week if we are lucky.”
Labourers and technicians claim that the suspension of public transport has reduced the crowd at both the squares. Nearly 1,000 people used to gather here in the morning in search of a job, they say, but now, only 300-400 people manage to come.
“Workers and masons from the neighbouring districts and villages used to come here to secure the day’s employment, but due to the suspension of public transport only people who live nearby are coming,” said Sakhil, an auto driver at Jinsi square.
Reduced demand has further lowered the wages as the fear of contracting the illness has prompted households to put off renovation and construction work. “Contractors, locals fear coming here because of the corona. We don’t know where else to gather,” said Ramkumar Verma, a painter.
Rising fuel prices have raised prices of construction material as well, forcing the builders to put the construction work on hold, explains Vivek Chouhan, a contractor. A truck-load of sand now costs twice as much, cement prices have also climbed. The prices of most of the construction materials have surged, he says.
“The deadline of the construction of a 16-floor mall and super-speciality private hospital near the Habibganj railway station had to be pushed back,” says Akhtar Ahmad, a contractor.
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