Lockdown is relaxed but construction projects unlikely to resume due to rainy seasonThe lockdown period coincided with the time when construction projects usually gather momentum, contractors say.
Just days after the government decided to relax the Covid-19 lockdown to allow construction work to continue, a leading construction company in the country has said that it plans to halt its projects because of the monsoon season.
Sharma and Company plans to halt work on bridges it is building in Janakpur, Saptari, Jhapa and Taplejung from Monday,
The Cabinet on Wednesday decided to relax the lockdown rules for the construction sector. But contractors say the decision came a bit late, as the monsoon has entered the country and they cannot work during rains.
“We have been forced to halt construction of all bridges due to the risk of floods in the rivers during the rainy season,” said Ramesh Sharma, managing director at Sharma and Company. “We also may not continue work on the Madan Bhandari Highway section connecting Sindhuli and Udayapur due to the rain,” he added.
The government-enforced lockdown, which began on March 24, was relaxed only after 79 days, which coincided with the time of the year when construction activities speed up. “Most construction works are halted once the monsoon begins. But the government relaxed the lockdown just ahead of the monsoon,” said Rabi Singh, president of Federation of Contractors’ Association of Nepal. “Reopening of the construction sector now makes no difference to us.”
He said the contractors would not want to restart work during rainy season, as it would be costly to set up labour camps and arrange machinery at the project sites. “Also, work can’t be done properly as rain frequently interrupts things,” he said.
Even before the latest government announcement, the construction sector was partially re-opened on May 6 as the Cabinet decided to allow projects and industries that produce construction materials such as cement and iron and steel to resume production..
But that didn’t help the contractors resume work as they had wanted to. They said that they could not find workers due to the suspension of transportation facilities. Getting construction materials was also an issue.
With the latest relaxation, the government has opened up transportation and mining and quarrying. As per the latest decision, companies can transport workers in vehicles by keeping one person per seat while also ensuring they wear masks, use sanitisers and the vehicles carrying the workers are disinfected daily.
But the contractors question how they can recruit workers when the government hasn’t allowed the movement of vehicles from one district to another.
Sharma and Company resumed the work at the new building of Bir Hospital recently. “But I have been able to recruit just around 100 workers for the project. There were 500 workers before the lockdown,” said Sharma. Most of the workers he employed were from the Tarai region.
He also expects to face similar issues at the new Citizen Investment Trust building his company is building in New Baneshwor, Kathmandu.
“Most of the workers skilled in fixing iron and steel are from Saptari and Siraha. It is difficult to bring them to Kathmandu as our own engineers fear that they might have been infected with Covid-19,” he added. “It will be difficult to convince the local people in Kathmandu about the risk as well,” said Sharma.
According to the contractors, local people don’t allow outsiders to come to their area amid Covid-19 fears. So the movement of workers has almost completely been halted.
Some contractors have started hiring locals, but not all of them are trained in construction work. “After locals didn’t allow us to bring workers from other parts of the country, we employed locals to build a view tower in Panchapur, Baglung,” said Ram Sharan Deuja, managing director of Sunlight Construction. “My company trained the local people, but they often make mistakes.”
Deuja said his company has been unable to continue work on a bridge project in Thimi, Bhaktapur, because an Indian technician hired to prepare the foundation has not returned to work.
The government has suspended international flights since March 22, and it will last at least till June end. “The government has not allowed the entry of foreigners and the project has been affected,” said Deuja.
Officials also admit that construction work may not pick up pace despite the relaxation of the lockdown. “I don’t see the possibility of rapid progress in development projects because of the monsoon,” said Shivahari Sapkota, spokesperson for the Department of Roads.
Due to the prolonged lockdown, the department hasn’t not been able to spend its budget. According to the department, only 34.6 percent of the allocated budget has so far been spent. “We also don’t expect to receive the whole budget allocated to us as revenue collection is going to take a hit this fiscal year,” said Sapkota.