MUMBAI: Mumbai has begun to win the battle against COVID-19, but Maharashtra’s main industrial belt of Pune-Pimpri-Chinchwad-Chakan and Aurangabad, home to automobile majors such as BMW, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen and top electronic industries, are grappling with the virus.
Consider this: Pune-Pimpri-Chinchwad-Chakan currently has 41,357 active cases but in comparison, Thane and Mumbai, the other Covid hotspots in the state, have 36,858 and 22,891 active cases.
However, Mumbai is far ahead in deaths, with 4,899 persons succumbing to the disease. Pune-Pimpri-Chinchwad-Chakan has seen nearly 1,600 deaths so far. Aurangabad has got 4,215 active cases and seen 333 deaths. (See graphic 1)
The "alarming" rate of spread forced the Pune district administration to order a fresh lockdown from July 14 to July 23 to break the chain of transmission. Some of India’s top companies, including multinationals, have their factories in these two industrial belts, employing more than 10 lakh workers, both formal and informal (See graphic 2).
But the raging disease has resulted in the firms having to cope with a reduced workforce even though many of the migrant workers who had left have returned. While in Aurangabad only 70 per cent of the lakhs employed in top line companies are in attendance, in Pune-Pimpri-Chinchwad it is about 80 per cent.
It is difficult to put a finger on why the two industrial belts of Maharashtra are particularly affected by the virus. But Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal commissioner Shravan Hardikar said it could because many of the employees live in Pune but travel to Pimpri-Chinchwad for work, thereby carrying the virus with them.
"Earlier we had very few cases but after the lifting of the lockdown, which allowed people to travel from Pune to Pimpri-Chinchwad, there was a spike in the numbers," Hardikar said.
"We have now put restrictions on public movement. Only those who want to travel from one place to another with a valid reason are allowed. The cases are rising but we are confident it will come down," he added.
Aurangabad additional municipal commissioner Atik Kumar Pandey said they were leaving no stone unturned to contain the disease. He said Aurangabad had carried out the highest number of swab tests across India.
"It is 80,000 samples tested for per million population as against the state average of 7,000 tests per million population. It is our earnest effort to contain the virus from spreading and to bring back normalcy in the city and its surrounded areas," Pandey said.
In mid-May, there were only about 1,000 confirmed cases In Aurangabad. This went up to 4,000 by June end and currently it is in excess of 9,000.The now-open, now-lockdown has hit the industries.
"The local civic bodies are enforcing a strict lockdown and are prohibiting people from coming. This is hampering our supply. Our customers in Europe do not care about our local issues, they only want us to meet their demand on time," said CII Aurangabad president Mukund Kulkarni.
Kulkarni complained that local authorities were not being industry-friendly. "A few days back, there were some cases of Covid-19 in our industrial area so the authorities shut down all the plants for nine days. This is not good. We need to give confidence to the industry," he said.
The Pune industrial belt, dominated by automobile companies, earlier faced a labour shortage as many of the migrants had left. Now many of them were back but the auto manufacturers are not functioning at optimal capacity because of low demand.
"Ours is mostly automobile companies. Globally, demands are low so the companies here have slowed production. Once the demand picks up they will ramp up," said Dilip Batwal, secretary of the Federation of Chakan Industries.