At 11:30 AM Friday, around 50 men huddled near the “materials gate” of Maruti Suzuki’s main plant in Manesar, on the outskirts of the National Capital, some with papers and files in their hands. Over the past two days, with the facility moving to restore normal production, these ITI diploma-holders from towns in Haryana, who had been working here earlier, had got calls to return.
“More than 100 men have joined already. My hope is that even if they keep me as a temporary employee, they should not ask me to leave soon,” says Deepak Kumar, from Bhiwani.
“I have been unemployed and working on a farm. We are here for the money, but we are also taking a risk by coming to work in the time of Covid. I hope the company understands this, and provides us jobs for a longer period,” says Sonu, from Palwal. “The workers from UP and Bihar have gone back, that’s why the company has called us from districts nearby.”
Production levels are still far short of pre-Covid levels at the Manesar plants of auto majors, such as Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL), Hero MotoCorp, and Honda Motors and Scooters India (HMSI), but the industrial hub has come back to life.
Trucks are carrying finished vehicles and supplies; buses have started transporting workers; street vendors are selling food and tobacco products; and, even some migrant workers from UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal are trickling back to Kasna and Bansgaon, the villages nearby where most of them stay on rent.
MSIL produced 3,714 vehicles in May after drawing a blank in April due to the lockdown. Company sources say production has been ramped up and is expected to be higher for June. HMSI started production in Manesar in the first week of June, more than a week after it restarted its plant in Karnataka’s Narsapura.
In fact, the entire passenger vehicle segment clocked zero sales in April, and factory output contracted by a record 55.5 per cent. However, with farm activity picking up, tractor manufacturers got some relief, with M&M clocking the sale of 4,772 units that month. In May, most manufacturers saw an 80-90 per cent drop in domestic sales over the month last year.
The Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers has estimated that the sector could see “de-growth” in the range of -22 per cent to -35 per cent for FY21, if the overall GDP growth stayed at 0-1 per cent. It pointed out that the industry employs over 3.7 crore people and contributes to 15 per cent of GST amounting to Rs 1,50,000 crore every year.
In the case of car showrooms, MSIL, which has the largest presence with 3084, has seen “near normalisation”. “About 2,800 showrooms are open. Only those in containment zones have not been able to,” says a company official. The trajectory of other players in the sector is similar.
In Manesar, following the “zero April”, the Haryana government started relaxing its Covid curbs from May 3. While Hero MotoCorp, the country’s largest two-wheeler manufacturer, resumed operations across three of its manufacturing plants from May 4, MSIL restarted production at its Manesar main plant on May 12. Several other manufacturers have followed suit.
According to the MSIL official, “most of the bottlenecks are over” and the company is witnessing demand again, but “there are still problems” due to some vendors being in containment zones.
MSIL chairman R C Bhargava had earlier said that apprehension over sharing space will add to demand for vehicles. He had also acknowledged that it won’t be easy to get back migrant workers from other states.
MSIL is relying on local workers for now, although residents in Kasna and Bansgaon say some of the migrants have returned. Shaitan Singh, who runs an electrical appliances shop in Kasna, has given out 20 rooms in Bansgaon on rent to migrant workers. “The village was empty after the lockdown. But over the last week, the workers are slowly returning,” he says.
Still, the shops in Kasna, which were buzzing with activity because of the huge migrant population, are struggling for customers — and the village is near empty.
“There is no sale and I have to pay the rent for the shop from my savings. With the factories starting again, I hope things will improve,” says Arshad, who runs a readymade garments shop.
Shaitan Singh says he had stocked up on fans and coolers worth Rs 9.5 lakh in March but will have to return the lot now. “I did not take rent from my tenants in April and May. But I hope to start getting rent now as the workers are coming back,” he says.
Hoshiyaar Singh, a supervisor with a transporter that owns over 600 trucks, says almost one-third of the vehicles are back. “Earlier, 4,500-5,000 trucks used to enter the MSIL plant on a daily basis. Now the number is around 1,600-1,700 and going up every week,” he says.
“But the turnaround time has gone up as the company is following health safety measures. The drivers are being checked for temperature, everything is sanitised…If it took 2-3 hours earlier for the trucks to get free, it is now taking 5-6 hours,” he says.
Sunder, a driver with Rao Travels that has a contract with MSIL to ferry workers, says that over the past week, most of the buses are back, and so are their staff. “In May, less than 100 buses were plying, now it is over 250 daily,” he says.
Outside the Honda facility, an employee from Delhi admits that “production is still low”. “But the workers are back, except for those in containment zones or some who have not returned from their states. We are fast moving back to normal,” he says.
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