Contractor Ramesh Sharma is having a hard time finding workers to build a section of Hulaki Rajmarg in Kapilvastu, one of the worst corona affected districts in Nepal.
He had hired nearly 500 workers before the Holi festival in March, but now there are only 300 of them left at the construction site.
“Most of the workers come from the border regions and some are from India. They had gone home to celebrate the Holi festival in March, and have not returned due to Covid -19 fears,” Sharma, who is managing director of Sharma and Company, told the Post.
Kapilvastu is one of the hardest hit districts. As of Wednesday, more than 200 cases had been confirmed.
Sharma has also been struggling to put together construction crews to build bridges over the Ratuwa Khola in Jhapa and the Kadam Khola in Morang. Morang is reeling from a surge in virus infections with more than 500 cases reported as of Wednesday.
“I wanted to mobilise five groups of workers, but I have not been able to assemble more than three groups as Indian workers have not returned,” said Sharma.
Contractors say that workers who have gone home for the Holi festival, mostly those from India, have not returned to work fearing an imminent lockdown in Nepal.
India has been ravaged by a second wave of coronavirus with the country reporting over 350,000 cases daily in recent days.
“In such a situation, people want to stay with their family members,” said Rabi Singh, president of the Federation of Contractors’ Association of Nepal. “If they come to Nepal, there will be nobody to take care of them if they contract the coronavirus.”
Apart from the difficulty of finding workers, contractors said they had problems getting certain construction equipment and materials made in India.
Singh said he has not received a water pump he ordered from India nine weeks ago, even though they had said it would be delivered in five weeks.
“As a result, a water supply project in Halesi, Khotang, in which my company is involved, has been delayed,” said Singh, who is also managing director of Mahadev Khimti Nirman Sewa.
Construction work intensifies during the period March to June annually. A second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has retarded development projects.
Contractors said that labour shortages and costlier construction materials, including bitumen, iron and steel, were major concerns for them at the moment.
“In some regions like Karnali and Mustang, authorities are preventing construction workers from entering because they want to control possible infections,” said Singh.
Contractors said that the degree of the pandemic’s impact on the construction sector would depend on the restrictions on the movement of people and goods at the building sites.
Even though prohibitory orders have been slapped in different pockets badly affected by the coronavirus, including the Kathmandu Valley, construction sites have not been closed.
The Department of Roads, which spends the largest chunk of the development budget, said they had been asked to continue with business as usual.
“Despite the prohibitory orders, the department’s pass will enable our staff to travel while contractors and their workers and vehicles will get separate travel passes,” said Arjun Jung Thapa, director general at the department.
“Therefore, construction work will not stop this year like last year when we were ordered to drop everything.”
But department officials and contractors said it would not be easy to continue working in the midst of a pandemic like in normal times. They are concerned whether there will be an environment to carry on working even if they are not shut down officially.
A more dangerous and infectious variant of the coronavirus has been spreading like wildfire, officials said. On Saturday, as many as 5,706 people came out positive when taking the polymerase chain reaction test.
Another 57 people were confirmed to be infected through antigen tests. Nepal has so far seen 328,893 cases of infection with 43,213 active cases.
On March 6, there were only 47 confirmed cases.
Historically, more than 70 percent of the capital expenditure is made during the final four months of the fiscal year. But the situation was reversed in the last fiscal year due to the lockdown imposed to slow down the spread of the pandemic, according to the Finance Ministry.
In the last fiscal year, overall expenditure stood at 71.18 percent, below the average expenditure of over 80 percent in recent years. As the capital budget could not be spent in the final four months of the last fiscal year, overall capital budget expenditure stood at just 46.34 percent, according to the Financial Comptroller General Office, the agency responsible for keeping records of government income and expenditure.
“A situation similar to last year has arisen,” said Thapa of the Department of Roads. “Even if construction work is not stopped fully, there will be a slowdown in the implementation of development projects this year too.”
Work at some of the major development projects have stopped or slowed. According to Thapa, the implementation of projects, particularly those awarded to Chinese contractors, have stalled as they have remained in China.
According to the department, work has not progressed on the Rasuwagadhi-Syabrubesi road for more than a year as the Chinese contractor has not returned to work since fleeing the pandemic last year.
“The Chinese contractor who was awarded the contract to widen the Kalanki-Chabahil section of the Ring Road has also remained out of contact lately,” said Thapa. “The contractor should have been in the field by now.”
Improvement work on the Butwal-Narayangadh and Kamala-Kanchanpur roads has been progressing at a snail’s pace in the absence of contractors in the field.
China has been strict in barring movement of people from coronavirus affected countries as it has largely controlled the pandemic at home.
With development activities slowing, the country’s economic prospects could be affected, insiders said.
According to the National Account Estimate released by the Central Bureau of Statistics on Friday, with the revival of economic activities, Nepal’s economy was expected to grow by 4.01 percent this fiscal year, ending mid-July from a contraction of 2.1 percent in the last fiscal year.
However, the bureau said that the growth rate for this fiscal year would depend on how the Covid-19 situation evolves and if all activities resume after two weeks of restrictions.