Like every morning, Aziz Khan on Monday strutted towards the Jinsi square here, carrying chapatis and a water bottle. Laid off as a cook by a biryani restaurant, he hoped to keep up the strength to haul cement bags and bricks at a construction site at least till the evening. But like the past five days, he returned home by noon, somehow finishing the lunch at the square — swallowing some with difficulty and throwing bits at street dogs.

“Maybe tomorrow,” he murmured, while dispersing along with tens of construction workers, who stood up heavily from a pavement along shops, where they waited since morning in vain to find work. “You can’t miss even a day. You never know when work comes your way,” said Mr. Khan, 28.

Through the morning, every two-wheeler that stopped at the square brought hope for masons, electricians, plumbers, welders, painters and labourers gathered there. But among a mass of workers that crowded them, private contractors picked only two-three ready to work for the lowest wage, the longest. “Before the lockdown, we found work almost every other day. But now it’s just once a week if we are lucky,” said Ratan Ahirwar, a plumber.

At the Jinsi square, now only 500-600 locals arrive as against 1,000 earlier, with most scrambling to secure the day’s employment in the floundering real estate sector. The suspension of public transport has clipped the supply of cheap labour from neighbouring districts, while a reduced demand has crashed wages even as the cost of construction surges. And the fear of contracting the illness has prompted households to put off renovation and construction work.

“Contractors fear coming here. We don’t know where else to gather,” said Ramkaran Verma, a painter.

Spiralling fuel prices had pushed prices of construction material prompting builders to postpone projects, explained Akhtar Ahmed, a contractor. A truck-load of sand now costs twice as much, cement prices have climbed and steel rods become costlier too. “Local workers are costlier… investors also stare at bleak finances,” he said. A few large-scale commercial projects, such as a 16-floor mall near the Habibganj railway station, had to push back deadlines.

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