On Sunday afternoon, the wide avenues of central Delhi were deserted. But there was a hub of activity near the majestic India Gate.

A small contingent of workers was busy digging a trench next to a tree-lined pond. A young man lifted soil in a wide bowl on this head, which he carried to the side, where two others helped him unload.

“The work here will not stop,” remarked the young worker, a 28-year-old from Jaunpur district in Uttar Pradesh, sweat dripping down his masked-up face.

For ten days now, India’s capital has been under lockdown, with its health system collapsing in the face of a wall of coronavirus cases. At least 2,267 people have died of Covid-19 in the past week – and this is just a fraction of the deaths since many are going uncounted. Day after day, families frantically look for hospital beds, which have run out, and hospitals, on their part, send SOS messages to the government about oxygen shortages which in some cases have led to deaths.

Amidst this devastation, one project remains unaffected: the Central Vista project.

The project area is hidden behind barricades. Photo: Vijayta Lalwani

A pet project of the Narendra Modi government, it aims to redevelop a 3.2-km stretch called the Central Vista that lies at the heart of Lutyens Delhi built by the British in the 1930s. It involves tearing down and rebuilding several government buildings, including iconic landmarks, and constructing a new Parliament at a total cost of Rs 20,000 crore.

When the government hastily floated tenders for the project in September 2019, it was criticised as an exercise in vanity. This criticism has grown even more acute over the past year as the coronavirus pandemic ravages the country’s health systems and the economy.

As some have pointed out, the amount the government is spending on the Central Vista project would have been enough to build thousands of oxygen generation plants. The cost of 162 oxygen generation plants being built by the central government is Rs 201 crore. In contrast, the budget for the new Parliament building itself is nearly five times more at Rs 971 crore.

But the mounting criticism has left the government unmoved. On April 20, it invited bids for the construction of three buildings on the plot where the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts currently stands.

Meanwhile, work on the avenue redevelopment continues even as the rest of the city shuts down.

Currently, only construction projects which have workers staying on the site are permitted to operate in Delhi as per lockdown guidelines. But an exception has been made for the Central Vista project, which has been declared an “essential service”, government correspondence accessed by Scroll.in shows.

Permission to operate 180 vehicles

On April 16, when the city saw a weekend curfew, the Central Public Works Department, which is overseeing the project, wrote to the Delhi Police. It said avenue redevelopment work under the Central Vista project, awarded to Shapoorji Pallonji and Company Private Limited, is “of time bound nature and is to be completed before 30th November, 2021”, and therefore, the company had been directed to carry out the work “during all three shifts”.

The letter requested the police to allow the company to “ferry their workers to and fro from their labour camp at Sarai Kale Khan through their own buses during curfew period”.

In response, on April 19, the day the capital went into a longer lockdown, the deputy commissioner of police for New Delhi district issued movement passes for 180 vehicles engaged in the project work to operate during the lockdown.

The deputy commissioner’s letter stated that the movement passes had been granted in the “essential services” category.

In a text message on Sunday, a spokesperson of the Central Public Works Department told Scroll.in: “We have made limited arrangement for stay of labour at site and also got permission for movement of labour from labour camps.”

The next day, the spokesperson amended the comment to say that the project had reached a standstill. “Only critical activities are going on,” he said on the phone. “As of now, only those workers who are on the site are allowed, workers from outside are not allowed.”

Travelling to the site

But most workers on the site said they were commuting to work on buses daily.

Shapoorji Pallonji and Company Private Limited, one of India’s largest construction firms, is the main contractor for the redevelopment work of the Central Vista avenue, but the actual work has been subcontracted to smaller firms.

One of the subcontractors, BP Engineering Limited, has at least 30 workers on the site who work on 12-hour shifts, said a supervisor who requested anonymity.

Workers under this subcontractor said there were no living arrangements for them on the Central Vista or anywhere near it. They lived in rented rooms at three locations – Karol Bagh, nearly 8 kms away; Sarai Kale Khan, 7 km away; and Nizamuddin, 5 km away. Every morning, they came to the site on buses arranged by the contractor, they said.

“The company has not allowed us [to stay on site],” said the worker from Jaunpur, who did not want to be identified.

Another worker agreed. “We are around 25 workers. Our food and other arrangements have been made for us wherever we stay,” said the worker who hailed from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Workers under another subcontractor, the Chaudhary Construction Company, said they had been made to stay in makeshift accommodation around 2 km from the site in Janpath, central Delhi.

A third subcontractor, MV constructions, had to temporarily stop work because 200 of its workers left the city after the lockdown was announced on April 19, said Rati Ram Kevat, a supervisor with the company.

Before the curfew, at least 500 workers were working on the project site under various subcontractors, he said. “Earlier at least four buses used to come to drop off workers, now only one bus comes,” said Kevat, who hails from Tikamgarh district in Madhya Pradesh.

Trapped in Central Vista without wages

The fear of the coronavirus was evident among the workers who were aware that the pandemic was rampaging through the city as well as their home states. Many said they wanted to be with their families.

“There is fear because we have our families in other places and we need to take care of them,” said the worker from Jaunpur, who had been working on the project since February. “I do not have a problem going back [to Uttar Pradesh], but if anything happens to me, then my family cannot come here,” he added.

Some workers said the only reason they had stayed back in the city was because they had not been paid their wages.

Kevat, who lives in a small pucca structure in a park facing the India Gate, has been working in the area since 2006, first as a sanitation worker, then a gardener, earning Rs 9,000 a month. In February, he joined the avenue redevelopment project as a supervisor on a salary of Rs 12,000 for a 12-hour shift. But he has not received his salary for a month, nor have other workers, he alleged.

Another worker employed by MV Constructions, Shri Kumar Chauhan, said the company had not paid him his monthly wages of Rs 12,000 since March. Chauhan, a 33-year-old from Azamgarh district in Uttar Pradesh, is eager to be home with his family and vote in the state’s ongoing panchayat elections.

Vijay Kumar, 38, also employed by MV Constructions, said he had been working on the site since March 22. The company had promised him Rs 500 wages per day. Initially, he received weekly payments of Rs 1,000 out of his wages, but this has stopped since the lockdown, he alleged.

“We are just waiting for the money and then we will go home,” he said. “We cannot join another contractor here, otherwise our old contractor will not give us our money.”

Scroll.in contacted Sanjay Singh, the proprietor of MV Constructions, who said workers would get their full salaries at the end of the month. “I had given their supervisor the money for their daily allowance but he must have not disbursed it,” he claimed.

He said his firm had started work on the avenue on March 27, but had to stop after the lockdown started because the permission letter for workers to commute to the site was restricted to those who stayed at the labour camp in Sarai Kale Khan. “Most of my workers live in Old Delhi, or have gone back home,” he said.

But Kumar and Chauhan insisted this wasn’t the case.

Both the men live in a park overlooking the India Gate, in a small cluster of makeshift homes put together by flex sheets, tarpaulin and ropes. The cluster, they said, was built to house the area’s sanitation workers and gardeners well before the redevelopment work of the Central Vista began. Engaged earlier in the daily work of layering flower beds, beautifying the gardens and cleaning the ponds for the Republic Day celebrations, like Kevat, they had switched to the higher-paying avenue redevelopment work.

But now, they find themselves without wages, left to fend for themselves during a lockdown. “We have not eaten anything since morning,” said Kumar.

Last year in March, when India abruptly went into a five-week nationwide lockdown, with all transport services coming to a stop, Kevat had made two unsuccessful attempts at walking 578 kms away to his village in Tikamgarh.

“Both times I was stopped at the Badarpur border [Delhi-Haryana border] and the police put me in a bus and dropped me here,” he recalled. He survived on food rations distributed by non-profits.

This year, he has decided against going home. Yet, the news of the collapse of the health system in Delhi is keeping him anxious.

“I watch the news but I feel so bad that I just switch it off,” he said. “Some people are not getting beds and I read there is no space in the crematoriums either.”