Nagaland: Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on construction workers
Coal miners taking a break at a coal mine at Tiru near Oting Village under Mon district.

Kohima: In March 2020, along with the rest of the nation, Nagaland went into a strict lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and several sectors including the construction sector were severely hit, as with restrictions on movements, life was brought to a standstill. But for 22-year-old Nimul Haque, a migrant worker from Karimganj in Assam, it was a whole different story.

Speaking to EastMojo at his present construction site, Haque recalled the horror of spending about 22 hours at work on some nights amid the pandemic, only to be left without pay after months of work.

Haque who came to Nagaland in 2019 started as a painter. About a month ahead of the COVID-19-induced lockdown, Haque had arrived in Kohima looking for greener pastures, and to escape the tormenting heat of Dimapur city.

A local construction worker seen working at a site in Kohima

“We received an assignment for construction work at that time, and so I came to Kohima with my friends because the wages are higher and the weather is also more pleasant. Then, the lockdown happened. For about a week we stayed without work but since we lived at the construction site and we were not allowed to go out of the area, we began to work indoors,” Haque recalled.

The young mason said that working from home then became a nightmare as the employer demanded the completion of two days’ work in just one day. He recounted having hardly 3 hours of sleep as he and his three other friends who lived at the construction site stayed up till early morning to get their works done.

After dealing with the work pressure, around the time when the state government permitted inter-state movement for migrant workers, Haque and his co-workers decided that it was time to go home to their families and take a break from work. But the construction workers were in for a shock as their employer refused to pay their wages.

“He had asked us to work on another building construction, giving us an assurance that we would receive our pay after that. So, we worked for some more time and then asked him to at least pay us for our fares to return home, that is about Rs 1,600 for one person. But instead, he gave us Rs 500 each and told us to take one truck load of sand and 20 bags of cement in exchange for the payment,” Haque told EastMojo.

Miners working at the coal mine at Tiru near Oting village under Mon district.

Apart from non-payment of their wages, these migrant workers were also victims of verbal abuse by their employers. This could be due to a lack of representation of Construction-related workers as EastMojo highlighted in the previous story. Although the employer did not pay their wages, Haque said that during the pandemic, the employer had at least provided rations for their survival.

Unable to deal with the unexpected situation, Haque and his co-workers left the site, refusing to accept the unethical payment. To this day, he said that he and his friends are yet to receive their wages. Back then, with no money left, Haque had to take up another construction work for about a few more months before he could go home.

“I dropped out of school because I wanted to help my father look after the family. My parents are farmers, and we sustained on agriculture for livelihood and education. But as the only son in the family, I had to look after my parents and my younger sister at an early age,” Haque said. He returned to Kohima last year to continue earning for the family.

Haque revealed that all his earnings are sent home to his family as he takes care of his sister’s education as well. “Depending on my earnings, I send about Rs 5000-Rs 15,000 in a month, and as when my family requires,” he added.

The pandemic experience, he said, was one in a lifetime as he has never encountered that before or after he optimistically said that such experiences are part of the learning process. “Although it can be difficult at times, I have to earn money for my family, and I have started to enjoy what I do. My profession is a learning process, and I know for sure that the skills I master through this process will help me earn a living even if I am in any part of the world,” he added.

The pandemic has no doubt impacted the lives of people around the world, while many lost their jobs, others had to switch their means of livelihood. It was no different for 22-year-old Pongchi Konyak from Aboi under Mon district.

He moved to Dimapur in 2016 for his education but had to take up construction work to pay for his fees. He began by working as part-time construction labour, making his way to Kohima where he earns about Rs 500 a day, as compared to Rs 450 per day in Dimapur.

Similar to Haque, Konyak returned to Dimapur just a month ahead of the pandemic-induced lockdown. He revealed that with the lockdowns, he had to give up construction work and take up other professions. During the pandemic, the mason began to deal with supplying water, to earn his wages. Later, he took up work at a restaurant in Dimapur.

However, with his interest in construction-related works, particularly woodwork, Konyak plans to make a comeback to the sector as he prepares to leave for Manipur next week for the construction of a building. “Our employers in Manipur are planning to pay us on a salary basis. I will work there till I return home for Christmas this year,” he shared with excitement.

With his keen interest in carpentry, Konyak hoped to save money, and one day, be able to enrol for carpentry courses and excel in the profession.

While the construction sector is recovering from the pandemic, there are works in the sector that are strictly seasonal. At Oting village under Mon district, coal miners who sustain mining at Tiru (located near the village), only get work during the winter season. Ya-om Wangnao, 23, who has been mining since he was 18 years, shared how the pandemic has had little impact on them.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic was announced, inter-village movements were also restricted. As we live near the Assam border, movements were strictly restricted. There was so much fear in the minds of people. But at that time, mining activities had not started. By the time mining began in November, restrictions were relaxed,” he shared.

The young miner shared how they were used to COVID-19 etiquette like wearing masks and washing hands at the coal mine sites even before the pandemic. Despite the short duration of mining which normally happens for around two months in a year, he said that miners earn about Rs 3500 where there is a high demand and drops to Rs 1500 at other times, some even Rs 500 a day depending on the nature of the work.

Most villagers engage in mining during the winter seasons and engage in agricultural activities during the other seasons. The miners would spend five days a week at the coal mine site and return home during weekends to attend church on Sundays. Earnings from the mines are usually spent on Christmas festivities, and on fee payment of school students, he said. But for Wangnao, who is the youngest among 9 children, he saves it for his family’s livelihood.

However, village activities, including coal mining, came to a standstill on December 4, when six out of eight miners who returned home from work were killed by security forces over a case of “mistaken identity” during an ambush that was supposed to be an attack on insurgents. That same evening, seven more persons from the village were killed following a clash between the villagers and the security forces. 

After the incident, Wangnao said that there are now apprehensions among the villagers, especially among women, to leave for coal mining activities without a companion. The tragic death of the 13 miners left a bigger scar in the lives of the locals, as compared to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the second of a five-part series highlighting the experiences and challenges faced by the construction industry in Nagaland, as part of the Kohima Press Club and Nagaland Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board Media Fellowship. 

Read Part One Here | Nagaland construction workers: Unheard, invisible, and at risk

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