Before the coronavirus struck, Indian automobile giant Maruti Suzuki had been rolling out three cars every minute from its three manufacturing units in Haryana and Gujarat.
But since the lockdown was enforced from March 25, Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) has been literally crawling for survival. After the lockdown was lifted partially on April 21, it started making 15,000-20,000 units per month as opposed to 1.25 lakh cars a month earlier.
The company is trying hard to strike a balance between the quest for survival of its employees and car production as the need for social distancing and other measures to secure employees from the virus has slowed the production of cars considerably.
Maruti’s car dealers across the country and ancillary units dependent on it are the worst hit. Deepak Maini, an industrialist, said there are 200 such units in Gurugram alone that supply automobile parts to Maruti, Hero, Hyundai and Honda.
RC Bhargava, chairman, MSIL, told The Federal that since the pandemic is still raging and there is no cure in sight, “safety of the employees is our priority.” However, “we need to keep the production momentum” as well, he said.
The company has taken a number of measures within the factory floor to ensure social distancing norms. Currently, only 50 per cent employees are called to office on a rotation basis. Most meetings happen online and lunch for the employees is served at their desk, and separate entry/exit have been created for each building. A full-body sanitisation and temperature check of employees is ensured before they are allowed to enter the building.
In order to maintain social distancing norms, machines have also been rejigged, and this has adversely impacted the production.
So far, only one of its employees has tested positive for COVID-19 and the company has extended all support under its medical policy. It has also developed a ‘Wellness Mitra’ app to keep a check on the spread of the disease.
“Anyone who gets a red mark on the app-status is disallowed from entering the factory. Every employee has to fill details on the app to update their health status daily,” said a company statement, adding that production is happening as usual in two shifts.
The company has announced no salary cuts so far. Even contractual employees are being paid their salaries on time. Maruti considers the pandemic as temporary and hopes that with the support of its employees, it will recover.
Long wait for customers
According to Anushruti, managing director, Nimble Research, an automobile survey agency, customers are adopting a ‘wait and watch’ attitude even after three months’ lockdown as the pandemic is nowhere near its peak and its growth trajectory is unknown.
In terms of car sales, the financial year 2020-21 is likely to see 20 to30 per cent fall as compared to 2019-20, she said. Anushruti expects that the situation will continue till a vaccine or a cure is found for the disease.
TR Sawhney, a Delhi-based car dealer having several showrooms in the Delhi-NCR region, said, “On an average, we used to sell 200 to 225 cars every month and customers used to book at least a month in advance for the colour of their choice or for certain interiors. Last three months have been very critical; we sold very few cars.”
He is getting only a few customers at his showrooms as most of them are booking online. However, a few attempted booking online but didn’t succeed as they are still not familiar with this option, he added.
“Therefore, the demand is less, employees are less, customers are less, and we are struggling, thanks to the virus,” he said. Drawing an analogy from drivers’ instinct, he said, “We should take care of our body — look left and right, back and ahead; maintain social distancing and use masks to avoid the infection.”
Nitish Pathak, a Gurugram-based Maruti car dealer, said that customers who have booked vehicles before lockdown are shying away from taking deliveries, probably because of lack of confidence in the economy. As far as new bookings are concerned, they are far and few.
Pathak said that he is suffering financially as he has to pay salaries to his staff as well. He is thinking of attracting the wannabe car owners who are now scared of travelling in public transports due to the pandemic. He is now waiting for the company to come out with some active schemes to attract such customers.
The pandemic has hit the government and private sector employees equally. Ajit Kumar, a central government employee, who has been thinking of buying a car for several years, said, “Now, things are beyond imagination.”
“The fear of the virus has changed our mindset, our planning, our day-to-day activity, and our behaviour and everything. The purpose of buying a car meant a lot to me before the pandemic, but now it’s no longer relevant. I have postponed the idea of buying a car,” he said.
Like Ajit Kumar, tens of thousands of other customers have either postponed their plans of buying cars or cancelled it permanently.