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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Amid second wave, NHAI, contractors kept workers back with vaccines, food

Early April, contractors and officials consciously drove home the message that labourers are much better off, and safer, staying in their camps at work sites than heading to their villages.

Written by Avishek G Dastidar | New Delhi |
Updated: June 21, 2021 6:57:20 am
Towards the end of April, with the second wave raging, 5,000 highway construction workers were down with Covid, according to official data.

Vaccines, isolation wards, medical insurance, oxygen-fitted ambulances and food — these are some of the ways the country’s national highway builders checked an exodus of labourers from work sites, even as the second wave of the pandemic unfolded over the past two months.

Learning from the experience of the first lockdown in 2020 — when scores of migrant labourers left their places of work, including highway construction sites, and walked back hundreds of kilometers to their villages — contractors working on projects of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) worked overtime to ensure that workers had a strong reason to stay back.

Towards the end of April, with the second wave raging, 5,000 highway construction workers were down with Covid, according to official data. That number has now been brought down to around 2,000 across all 480 NHAI projects that involve the construction of 25,000 km worth of highways at over Rs 5 lakh crore.

Early April, contractors and officials consciously drove home the message that labourers are much better off, and safer, staying in their camps at work sites than heading to their villages. “Our contractors and the construction companies have learnt from the experience of last year. The workforce also realises that all these facilities may not be so easily available if they choose to go back to their villages,” SS Sandhu, Chairman, NHAI, told The Indian Express.

As the government insisted that vaccines were the only real protection against the disease, the NHAI organised around 700 vaccination camps at its work sites across India.

Subsequently, as and when labourers started showing symptoms of Covid, around 2,700 beds were made available at isolation wards set up across projects. Oxygen-equipped ambulances were deployed too. The regional offices of the NHAI were activated to coordinate with district administrations and contractors at the project sites.

Besides, testing for Covid became a matter of routine for all contractors. Life insurance cover of NHAI officials was also increased from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 20 lakh.

While officials said the exact number of labourers engaged at any given day across India is difficult to estimate (since engagement of manpower is according to the contractor’s need), NHAI says contractors have reported only 10-15 per cent fewer labourers when compared to March-end this year.

The labourers who did go to their villages in the beginning of April are also being brought back by contractors, officials said. “There has been a positive outlook among the labourers to return to the work site and the contractors are facilitating their safe return,” Sandhu said.

This is because the country’s premier highway builders have learnt from last year’s lockdown, when they lost some of the best months for road construction to the pandemic. Despite that, NHAI constructed 4,192 km of national highways in 2020-21, the highest so far.

With an aim to surpass the construction record set last fiscal, NHAI has issued instructions to field offices to speed up construction work, wherever possible, as traffic is still low due to pandemic-related restrictions.

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