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A long return trip to forget scars of exodus

... compel contractors and developers to fall back on migrant workers who are slowly returning 

Published: 26th August 2020 02:57 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th August 2020 02:09 PM   |  A+A-

Photo | Shiba Prasad Sahu

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Sitting at his home in Uttar Pradesh, Omprakash is anxiously awaiting a bus that would ferry him to Chennai, the very place that he had left a few months ago. A resident of Gorakhpur, Omprakash is desperate to get back to work as he is struggling to feed his family of three children.

Like the millions of migrant workers who were left in the  lurch when the country went into lockdown on March 24, Omprakash too had a miserable home-coming experience. Talking to Express over phone, Omprakash says he has no alternative but return to Chennai.

“In Gorakhpur, there are not enough jobs and they pay Rs 500 a day which is way less. I love my State but have to support my family. My daughter is taking online classes and I have to pay her fees,” he says adding that he is waiting for the bus sent by his employer, a real estate developer in Vanagaram, to take him back to Chennai. Meanwhile, the construction sector in Chennai is seeing an uptick as many developers and contractors are trying to bring back the workers from north India to finish the pending works. 

Shortage of workers, expensive local labour, and a deadline to stick to...

Not all are able to forget the scars of their exodus. 33-year-old Bhagirathi, a carpenter from Chapra district in Bihar and a father of two kids, says he will not return to Chennai and has opted to work with a construction firm in Pune. "The contractor in Chennai was not good, so I rejected the offer," he says. Bhagirathi was among the 350 construction workers employed by a reputed developer in the city and they had protested after being denied two months' salary and proper food.

Meanwhile, the construction sector in Chennai is seeing an uptick and many developers and contractors are trying to bring back the workers from Odisha, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand to finish the pending works. Estimates say Tamil Nadu has been dependent on three lakh migrant workers for infrastructure, housing and commercial projects. 

Omprakash says the private developer who has paid for the bus wants to complete the remaining three floors of a 14-floor building. “Before the lockdown, we had completed 11 floors. Now, they want the remaining floors to be built as early as possible,” he says, adding that their pending salaries were paid by the company when they left Chennai. His friend Biswajeet has already boarded the bus which is approaching Gorakhpur after undergoing checks throughout its way. A total of 32 people would be boarding the bus, Omprakash says.

He expects the bus to reach his hometown on Wednesday.  Why do developers spend huge amounts on transport?The developers in Tamil Nadu are desperate to get affordable labour as the local workers are charging high. “Local labourers are charging nearly double and are not that efficient as the migrant workers,” says K Venkatesan, a railway contractor and State secretary of Builders’ Association of India.
“I brought 30 migrant workers from Bihar and other parts of north India by spending around Rs 2.5 lakh,” he says, adding that labour crisis and expensive local labour forced him to do so.

“After the migrant workers left, we tried engaging the local labour who were demanding Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,400 a day which is nearly double as to what we pay to migrant workers (around Rs 800 a day). On top of it, I had to pay for the travel cost of local workers which came to around Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 a day.” He further said that these local workers were brought from Arakkonam. “With cost overrun and pressure from the government to complete railway projects, I had no option but to fall back on migrant workers,” he says.

With building projects restarting in the city, contractors are hiring private buses to bring back the migrant workers. S Sridharan, CREDAI chairman, Tamil Nadu Chapter, says labour shortage remains a big challenge as most of the projects have restarted. “The labour shortage could be addressed once the trains are allowed to run. The government should run special trains to bring back the migrant workers,” he says. S Ramaprabhu, State treasurer of Builders’ Association of India (BAI), says 50 per cent construction sites are now up and running, and many infrastructure projects have already started. Even government projects such as the Ernavur Housing project backed by the World Bank, where 6,877 tenements will be built under the Tamil Nadu Housing and Habitat Development Project, has started.

Locals charging double the rate
The developers in Tamil Nadu are desperate to get affordable labour as the local workers are charging high. “Local labourers are charging nearly double and are not that efficient as the migrant workers,” says K Venkatesan, the State secretary of Builders Association of India.



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