Raj Rani, a 45-year-old household help residing in Kaimbwala, is a worried woman these days. Six months after COVID 19 hit the nation, her family income has halved and no new employment has come her way. “Earlier I used to earn Rs 10,000 to 12,000 per month, now it is down to Rs 6000 to Rs 7000,” says Raj Rani, whose case is typical of all labourers living at the margins of society.
Her two sons, one employed as a driver and the second working with a local contractor, have also lost their jobs. As has her husband Ram Rattan, a scrap collector who supplemented his income doing odd jobs. “Earlier I used to collect old newspapers and magazines and sell these to a scrap dealer,” says Ram Rattan. “Now people no longer seem to read newspapers. I hardly contribute anything to my family income these days.”
Raj Rani’s family has been forced to find alternative employment, which is hard to come by. One son Sukesh is temporarily engaged as a handyman with two shopkeepers to home deliver groceries. His brother Rajesh is now engaged as a truck cleaner. “A number of our neighbours left for home in UP and Bihar and are yet to return,” says Sukesh.
“As per estimates, only 40-45 per cent of the labour have found work and they too are not getting full wages,” says Gautam Bhardwaj, Chandigarh State Legal Service Authority (SLSA) co-ordinator. “Some migrant labourers who had stayed back have been reabsorbed, but others returning now are finding it tough.” SLSA provides free legal services to the weaker sections of society.
Geeta, a 35-year-old mother of two, is another household helper who has fallen on hard times. These days you can find her sitting on a bench in sector 35 of the city waiting for any work to come her way. Geeta comes from the Bapu Dham colony, one of the worst affected areas of the city, and now works in only one home. She hopes her other former employers will re-engage her eventually.
Says Baljinder Singh, President, Federation of Sector Welfare Association of Chandigarh: “The RWAs and sector associations are now freely allowing workers to come. In my experience, only 20-25% residents are not allowing household help in their homes. It is more of a psychological issue now”.
Job losses and salary cuts
A medium-sized hotelier from Sector 35 says that so far occupancy in his hotel has been 30% of pre-Covid times. “I used to employ 55 people, now I have retained only 20. Earlier my salary bill was over Rs 5 lakh, now it is Rs 2.5 lakh. How will I pay them, when I am not earning myself?” he asks.
Most employers had reduced salaries of workers by as much as 50% during the lockdown and that reduction remains in place for workers who were retained. “The business volume has to pick up before we can restore the salaries,” said a business owner from Mohali.
Geetha and Raj Rani are among the hundreds of daily job seekers who assemble at the city’s Labour chowk in Sector 20 every morning, but few manage to get work. “Construction activity is nowhere near earlier levels,” said Parvesh Kumar, a plumber. “We turn up every day, some are picked up but we often wait throughout the day hoping that some labour contractor will engage us.”
Speaking to us from his village in Kanpur Dehat, Kalav Ram, a brick layer says, “It’s no use returning now. I have a small piece of land here in my village which I am now farming and living on some savings I had.” Says Harpreet Kaur, a social worker and a legal counsel for SLSA, “A large number of migrant labourers are coming back, but remuneration remains an issue.”
Meanwhile, in a real estate market depressed even during pre-Covid days, property prices have moved further southward. Property developers say that people are keen to buy property now due to the decrease in prices, as also the need to park their money in a safe investment.
“Commercial properties are down but we are getting buyers for residential properties,” says Kamajit Singh Panchhi, President, Property Consultant Association of Chandigarh. “However, in areas like Zirakpur, which have excess capacity, the market is down.”
Builders constructing residential and office complexes say that construction activity is down due to shortage of the right kind of skilled workers. “We are having difficulties getting the right people as migrant workers earlier engaged with us are still to return,” says Rahul Gupta, who is constructing a commercial complex in Sector 82.
Diwali, the big hope
The dire need to find alternative sources of income is not limited to just domestic and construction workers. Every category of labour has been hit hard. Like Rajiv Awasthi, an office worker in Mohali whose salary was cut by 50%. To make ends meet, he has now taken up a second job as data entry operator.
“I was not able to support my family with my salary reduced to just Rs 14,000 per month,” says Awasthi. “A few friends advised me to look online to boost my income. Data entry is low paid work, but every penny counts these days. Our incomes have gone down, but even basic necessities have become costlier. No wonder we are seeing an increase in the number of suicide cases in the city”.
“There is demand for people in the BPO and e-commerce segments which have not been impacted that much,” says Baljit Kang, proprietor of Antares Solutions, a placement company specializing in online jobs. “But they want candidates who can work from home. The demand in sales and retail segment is nowhere near what it was earlier. But these are early days and we will get to know the actual scenario post-Diwali.”
Market activity is expected to pick up during the November Diwali season. “But with income levels down, people are more inclined to save money,” said Amar Bansal, a shop owner from Sector 8. Grocery stores, meanwhile, are the new business favourites for investment purposes. In Sector 35 alone, three new grocery stores have opened up post-lockdown.
Professionals in hospitality, exhibitions and event management, and real estate sectors are among the worst affected.
“A large number of vendors related to exhibitions and events, especially those with inventories (light, sound, tent houses etc), have suffered the most,” says Hardeep Singh, owner of an exhibition and event management company who has had to drastically reduce his operations in the last six months.
“Many of these (companies) had taken loans from the government and it has been a huge disruption for them. The government has now raised the size of gatherings to 200 in Chandigarh and is also opening up the B2B segment. We are looking forward to that. But at the same time, there is no talk of B2C exhibitions.” Singh says that SoPs issued by the government are manageable in terms of compliance.
Business owners in the city have started alternative businesses, which are more suited to the needs of the times. A Mohali-based businessman who used to run an events business is now running food carts, serving ready-to-eat food to residential societies and institutions. Another business owner has floated a digital company, mainly catering to one big client.
Says Vivek Trivedi, Social Development Officer, Chandigarh Municipal Corporation: “The city is getting back on its feet. The levels of activity are almost back to normal. Things will only improve from here on.”
Though that optimism seems grossly misplaced when one sees the crowd of unemployed workers gathering daily at the city’s assembling points.