Metro, coastal road, sea link — migrant exodus leaves Mumbai’s major transport plans hanging

a body of water with a city in the background (C) Provided by The Print

Mumbai: Over the last two years, transport infrastructure projects in Mumbai that had been sluggish for years suddenly picked up a feverish pace, with some of them even looking at ambitious commissioning deadlines of 2020-2022. However, the Covid crisis, the lockdown and mass labour force migration has hit Mumbai's showpiece transport infrastructure projects hard. The major infrastructure projects under construction are six metro lines, including one underground corridor, a coastal road, and a sea link across the Mumbai harbour to connect the island city to the mainland.

Two of the six metro lines were expected to be commissioned this year, the underground corridor partially in 2021 and the rest by 2024. The Mumbai Trans Harbour Link and the coastal freeway have a deadline of 2022. The precise impact of the lockdown on deadlines and the project cost is not immediately clear, officials said, but they admit that there is a serious crunch of manpower and material, which has severely impacted the pace of work.

According to contractors, project implementing agencies said, the migrant workers who left the city may return by July or August after the kharif sowing concludes in their native villages. However, with the number of Covid-19 cases in Mumbai still rising, officials are not sure of how many might return. Mumbai, which had its first Covid positive case on 1 June, now has so far reported 55,357 cases, of which 28,163 are currently active.

It is also the city with the most cases in India. R.A. Rajeev, commissioner, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), said, "Work has not stopped, but it is going on with just 30 per cent efficiency.

It is not just the loss of manpower. The impact of Covid has been threefold -- manpower, procurement of material as well as delivery of work from international consultants and companies involved in the projects." The MMRDA is the implementing agency for five of the six metro lines under construction, as well as for the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link.

"Contractors are saying some workers might return in July, but we don't know considering the situation in Mumbai is not improving," Rajeev added. Also read: Why industries in Maharashtra are reluctant to employ Marathi workers despite shortage

Manpower crunch

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nationwide lockdown on 24 March to stem the spread of coronavirus, about 3,000 workers, employed at different construction sites of the underground Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro corridor, made a beeline for railway stations and left Mumbai as quickly as they could. The 33.5-km metro project had a total manpower force of 15,000 labourers.

Losing 3,000 workers hurt, but the contractors were still able to continue working. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRC) was mostly carrying out maintenance work during the lockdown, such as keeping tunnel boring machines (TBM) active and ensuring ventilation in tunnels. The authority resumed tunnelling from 23 April once it had the government's permission.

"But, then the migrants' crisis started boiling and we were really hit hard," said S.K. Gupta, director (projects), at MMRC. "More labourers left, and now we are left with just 4,000 workers.

The problem is acute as we can't just replace these labourers with any other labourers. For the specialised nature of work that we do, we need staff with specific skills -- workers trained in handling TBMs, in blasting and so on," he said. Gupta added that tunnelling work is still underway at project sites, but the capacity has gone down from seven TBMs to two. "The pace of work is just 10-20 per cent of what it was prior to the lockdown, and the contractors too are suffering as their overheads are running," he added.

By 1 June, almost 12 lakh migrants from Maharashtra, many from Mumbai, left in the Shramik trains that the Ministry of Railways had arranged. A few more left by state road transport buses and private transporters. On Wednesday, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray held a review meeting of infrastructure projects and asked the implementing agencies to issue advertisements and employ local labour to fill the manpower gap.

While project implementing agencies are following directions, MMRDA chief Rajeev said 70-80 per cent of the labourers employed for its metro projects are carpenters and fitters who typically come from the north Indian states. "Many of them have left and it is difficult to find labour with these particular skills in Maharashtra. The workforce in Maharashtra is mostly trained in the industrial sector, not in sectors such as infrastructure and real estate."

The coastal freeway project too lost 60 per cent of its total 400-odd labourers, an official working on the project said, requesting anonymity. Also read: 6 Mumbaikars, 6 stories - How coronavirus has changed life and work

Supply chain issues, foreign lockdowns also hurdles

Between the various metro projects and the trans harbour link, Rajeev said, MMRDA is working with companies from 12-15 countries for imports and consultancies. "We import a lot from countries such as Taiwan, Korea, Japan, China, Italy and Germany.

All of them were disturbed by Covid, lockdowns, and the companies based there were unable to deliver properly," he said, adding that delivery of important supplies have been delayed. The official working on the coastal road too said the project is facing procurement issues. Work on the first phase of the coastal freeway from Marine Drive to Worli has been underway for the most part of the lockdown, with activities such as reclaiming land and preparing for the rains by building culverts and protective sea walls.

"We have faced a lot of trouble in getting basic material such as armour rock that is needed to break the energy of waves and protect the coastline," he said. MMRC's Gupta said it would be difficult to comment on project timelines at the moment. "But, overall all projects have lost 2.5 months of good working time before the rains," he said. "The monsoon may now further slow down the pace."

Also read: Mumbai works to ramp up its health infra as it slowly surfaces from Covid lockdown

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