It was Tuntun Kumar Yadav’s third day back at work on the Mulund construction site that was locked down like everything else in the country in the third week of March, but was permitted to start functioning after May 4 when the government announced a few relaxations. The 23-year-old worker from Madhubani district in Bihar will be paid Rs 400 per day.
But Tuntun is in no frame of mind to count rupees right now. All he wants now is to go back home to his mother. He looks at his phone constantly. “I have filled the migrant form and submitted it at the police station and they have told me that they will call me any moment, so I keep checking my phone and in case I miss out on any call, I immediately call them back.”
Tuntun and his brother Mutkul came to Mumbai only last November and found work at the Mulund construction site. He says, “Jab main Mumbai aa raha tha tab maine socha nahi tha ki main iss tarah yahan fhass jaunga (When I was coming to Mumbai I never thought that I would get caught in this city in this manner).”
The two brothers are employed to plaster the walls of the 17-floor residential building at the construction site. With trucks and a cement mixer drum roller around, they have been passing their time at the muddy surface of the makeshift houses within the building premises. But their minds were in Bihar, as were those of the other workers who remain at the site and have been put to work.
“Our contractor has been providing us food. A few days ago, he gave us five kilograms rice and wheat. So he has been helping us in every way possible, but going back home is the only solution we have,” said another worker Devendra Yadav.
Some workers were seen wearing masks and working while many were roaming in the premises without masks.
After more than a month of a strict lockdown during which all construction work was shut down along with everything else, the government has allowed construction work to resume from May 4, wherever workers are available on site. Nearly 150 private developers have taken permits from the state government to resume work, in keeping with the stated conditions that the labour force is available on site, with social distancing and other safety measures in place.
While no new construction activity is allowed, developers have been permitted to go ahead with pre-monsoon work including protection of buildings, shuttering, waterproofing, flood protection, propping and structural repairs of building.
But the workers are not interested in staying on, even if it means earning a livelihood. They are desperate to go home, developers are discovering the hard way. The builders highlighted that big problems are of availability of workers, supply chain disruption and cash flow disruption.
“It is important that some activity starts and it is a step in the right direction. Mainly, pre-monsoon work has begun at the construction site. Developers have started work with the existing workers, but it is difficult to convince them. Many want to return home. We are trying to explain to them the present scenario and the hassle in procuring tickets and travelling. We are also in talks with the government to allow new construction activity at the sites, where workers, machinery and other raw materials is available. The suggestion is under consideration,” said Dharmesh Jain, former president, Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry.
“I don’t feel like working. From today we have been asked to start working again but I have not even looked at the plaster since the time the lockdown started, I just want to go home,” said Tuntun adding, “My younger brother is so scared that he will die here during this lockdown, that he has fallen ill.”
Another worker Tinku Sharma, who is also a painter, said, “We have been told to restart work. I have decided that I will work till the lockdown gets over, after which I will catch the first train to my home in Uttar Pradesh.”
They claim that many times they had thought of walking back to their homes, but Friday’s news that 16 migrant workers were run over by a train in Aurangabad has discouraged them. “Every day my mother calls me for more than ten times. Every time she tells us to walk and come back. She cries over the phone and on hearing her cry, me and brother start weeping here,” said the grim-looking Mutkul.
The workers said that there were around 100 people working at this construction site but since the lockdown, more than 70 workers left for their respective native states and only 20-odd workers are working. “There were around 30 workers who lived with us in these makeshift houses. They were from Uttar Pradesh. A truck driver offered to take them so they paid Rs 3,000 and they are currently travelling,” said Mutkul.
At another construction site in the area, around 100 workers resumed working two days ago. The security guard at the construction site said, “Half of the UP-based workers working here have filled the migrant travel form. They are just waiting for a call from the police station.”
“Ever since we have filled the form, we are hopeful that we will soon get a call from the police station informing that a train will take them to Bihar, for which I keep checking my phone, every five minutes,” said Yadav. As his younger brother Mutkul has been falling ill more often, he says that he is more desperately looking for a mode of transport to reach home.