Maruti starts to roll out cars from Manesar amid Covid-19 lockdown

On Tuesday, Ajeet Singh (name changed), a permanent employee at Maruti Suzuki’s (MSIL) Manesar facility, finally returned to his beloved factory floor, where he has worked for over a decade. But to his dismay, he found that much had changed in the 50 days that the factory had remained shut owing to the nationwide lockdown.

Though he was meeting his colleagues after weeks, Singh could not greet them with a warm hug, the usual chit chat was missing, and they couldn’t  go out for a smoke during a break like they used to. Where earlier, they would sit four to six to a table, now each table had only two workers and a plastic partition had been set up in the middle to enforce physical distancing.

With Maruti’s two plants in Manesar opening their doors on Tuesday, Singh and his colleagues are struggling to adapt to the plethora of new rules that the auto company has been deployed on the factory floor to ensure the health and safety of workers in the age of Covid-19.

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The most obvious casualty of the new regimen has been the friendly co-mingling between workers. Earlier, they would crowd around the food stalls during lunch hour, exchange banter and bonhomie. Today, lunch is served in parcels — second helpings come in small packs — and workers eat their food, while maintaining their distance from each other. Outside the factory, another startling sight greets the eyes.

Dozens of brand new Maruti Suzuki cars — DZire, WagonR, Ertiga — are piled up on the road. Transport workers and plant employees can be seen parking, test driving and checking the vehicles. A couple of security personnel, equipped with loud-speakers, continuously remind everyone about social distancing norms and make announcements to clear the roads.

Executives at APL Logistics, a subsidiary of the Japanese freight management company that handles the delivery chain of MSIL’s cars, are busy completing the dispatch of hundreds of new units which, despite being invoiced, got stuck at the plant due to the abrupt lockdown on 24 March. Some 2,800 such units are awaiting dispatch to locations like Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kolkata. The sudden rush to dispatch them has severely strained their capacities, more so because several restrictions persist even now.

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The Maruti’s Manesar plant has an inventory of over 20,000 ready vehicles. APL plans to load 650 cars on freight trains from Bawal in Haryana on Tuesday. And as the cars get ready to roll out of the plant, employees are coming to terms with the new realities. Navin Kumar, vice-president of Maruti Suzuki Employee’s Union, says several changes have been adopted to maintain the strict social distancing guidelines issued by the state government. Now most things, from tea vending machines to water dispensers, are  to be accessed by a ground-level, foot-operated  lever.

“Any place where the touch of hand was inevitable earlier, has been re-engineered and replaced by sensors or a button that can only be operated by foot. It is tough to get accustomed to this new environment, but it’s necessary,” he says.

Moreover, factory floors have been divided into mini-zones, with six-feet high partitions acting as dividers between workers. Many of them have been instructed to remain inside marked zones that define the permissible area for their movement.

On Tuesday, only a handful of workers were employed to finish the 15-20 units of Dzire and Ertiga that had been lying unfinished in the assembly line. Pre-lockdown, the plant used to see thousands of cars rolling out every day.

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In fact, out of some 6,000 workers at the MSIL car manufacturing unit, only 600 who reside nearby, were brought in today. They were transported by a fleet of buses — 10 workers to a vehicle — and they underwent two rounds of temperature checks, once inside the bus and then at the entrance to the factory. The workers also have to don face shields, masks and gloves once they cross the gate.

To monitor the health of its workers, MSIL has deployed an in-house app, which has been built in line with the government’s Aarogya Setu app. All data, including the workers’ health data collected in the last 14 days, are regularly uploaded on the app for quick reference and monitoring.

At Manesar Powertrain, a unit of Maruti Suzuki Powertrain India, which manufacturers internal combustion engines for Maruti’s top-selling models such as WagonR, Swift, Baleno, among others, nearly 500 workers were welcomed today. The focus here has been on ensuring that the highly sophisticated plant is up to scratch when it comes to maintenance and also that workers get accustomed to the new safety norms. Manufacturing activity has also started at the plant.

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Sources said that for the moment, the management has decided to complete the work that came to an abrupt halt when the lockdown was announced. A few dozen K12 engines that are widely used in mid-segment hatchbacks like the Swift, DZire, Baleno and Ignis, had been lying idle in the production line. “We are working on them today,” said a senior employee at the Powertrain plant.