It was the last week of April, when a coronavirus surge was devastating Delhi, with overwhelmed hospitals running out of oxygen, and crematoriums running out of space. India’s capital was under a strict lockdown. Most economic activity had come to a halt.

But every morning, a 50-year-old construction supervisor travelled over 20 km from his home in West Delhi to the heart of the city to supervise a small part of the Narendra Modi government’s ambitious project to redevelop the Central Vista.

Across the city, most construction projects had stalled since the lockdown rules allowed only projects with workers staying on the site to operate. But an exception had been made for the Central Vista project, which was declared an “essential service”, with permissions to bring workers on buses, as had first reported.

The supervisor, who asked to remain anonymous, oversaw around 30 workers engaged in road construction work on the 3.2-km stretch between Rajpath and Rashtrapati Bhawan. He had been working on the site since February. He spent nearly 12 hours there everyday.

On April 26, however, he woke up with a fever and decided to skip work. When the fever did not break for days, he went to a government-run Ayurvedic hospital on May 1, he said.

There, he stood in a queue for a token and waited for over an hour before his turn came to lean towards a window, to allow a health worker to take his nasal swab, he recalled. An hour later, he was told he had tested positive for Covid-19. He asked for his test report, he said, but wasn’t given one.

Over the next few days, his fever lingered, he lost his sense of smell and taste, and experienced breathlessness, he said. Other members in his family, too, developed Covid-like symptoms.

Although the supervisor does not have a test report to back up his claims of a Covid-19 infection, he insisted: “I got it from the site and other workers fell ill as well.”

After criticism of the Central Vista project had mounted in light of the pandemic, the government had barred access to the project site, even prohibiting photography. But was able to visit a corner of the site and speak to more than a dozen workers, in person and on the phone, who complained of cramped living conditions – inside tents, tin sheds, metal containers – that had made social distancing impossible. One person at the site said three workers had tested positive for Covid-19.

A spokesperson of the Central Public Works Department, the government agency responsible for executing the project, confirmed the three Covid-19 infections. In response to’s questions, he said the agency had carried out 263 RT-PCR tests at the site in May, “out of which 260 were found negative and only 3 were found positive. All positive workers are kept in isolation rooms/wards and given free medical assistance.” He did not respond to further questions about the workers’ medical treatment.

'No Photography' signboards put at the construction site of the Central Vista project in Delhi on Wednesday, May 12. Photo: PTI

Abandoned in illness

While the Central Public Works Department has acknowledged the three confirmed infections, the supervisor’s case raises the possibility that other infections may have gone unaccounted for, since he was not tested for Covid-19 at the project site.

His test at the government-run Ayurvedic hospital, Brahm Prakash Ayurved Charak Sansthan in Najafgarh, itself remains shrouded in mystery, since he said he was not given a report. “They [the health workers] just said that all those who were positive should go to another room and take the medicines from there, but they gave a slip to those who had tested negative,” he said.

An attendant at the hospital refuted this. He said slips were issued in the case of rapid antigen tests, for both positive and negative cases, while reports for RT-PCR tests were given in three days. “If he has done an RT-PCR test, then he can come and collect the report,” said Anil, an attendant at the medical superintendent’s office, who only goes by one name.

The supervisor said he was unable to get himself tested for Covid-19 at a private laboratory – there were no slots available. But he ran several blood tests at a lab in West Delhi, where he tested positive for typhoid.

The next few days, he stayed at home, in a feverish state, finding it difficult to take in full breaths. “I was barely conscious,” he said. He monitored his oxygen levels on an oximeter. On a couple of occasions, the levels fell below the safe mark of 94 percent saturation, but not for long enough to warrant the impossible task of looking for a bed in the hospital, he said.

When others in his family developed symptoms, they did not bother running around to get a test done. They simply took the cocktail of medicines that he claimed another doctor had prescribed him, which, apart from Vitamin C tablets, included Azithromycin, an antibiotic, and Ivermectin, an antiviral, that were being used in the treatment of Covid-19 patients, despite no evidence to back their use.

By the third week of May, the supervisor and his family had recovered from the bout of illness. On May 19, he went back for another Covid-19 test at the same hospital – this time, he was given a slip that said he had tested negative on a rapid antigen test.

But he still feels weak. “I get breathless even if I walk ten steps to the bathroom,” he said.

His main grouse: “The company did not help.” He was referring to Garg Builders, one of the subcontractors executing the Central Vista avenue redevelopment work that had been awarded to Shapoorji Pallonji and Company Private Limited, one of India’s largest construction firms. The supervisor said he had been working at Garg Builders for 30 years.

“They kept saying they would give me money in my account after I told them I had Covid, but they just made me a fool,” he said. “No one gave us medicines or salary.”

The supervisor said he was last paid his monthly salary of Rs 27,000 in March. The illness had cost him and his family Rs 30,000, and they had taken loans from friends to meet these expenses. contacted Garg Builders whose manager admitted that salaries had not been paid since March, but claimed that was because the office had been shut during the lockdown, making it difficult to hand out cash and cheques.

“The accounts will be cleared once the lockdown opens,” said Pawan, a manager at the company, who goes by his first name. “We paid some of the workers in advance also. We do not want to keep anyone’s money.”

When asked about the case of the supervisor, Pawan claimed employees who had fallen ill were asked to send someone to collect money on their behalf. “But no one came because of Covid,” he said.

The supervisor said he was unable to go or send his son to collect the money because they were ill. “He [the manager] has a staff of ten to 15 people, he could have sent them instead,” he said.

About the company’s policy on keeping workers safe during a pandemic, the manager said: “We did not force anyone to go to work even though the government has opened construction.”

In a photo taken in the last week of April, workers can be seen digging a trench near India Gate as part of the Central Vista redevelopment project.

In response to a petition filed in the Supreme Court, calling for construction work at the Central Vista project to be stopped in light of the pandemic, the Modi government had claimed that it was maintaining Covid-19 protocol on the site, which included masking up, sanitisation and thermal screening, and that it had arranged for testing, medical aid and isolation, in the event someone fell ill. It also claimed that contractors had provided health insurance to their workers.

But the supervisor alleged there were no serious measures being taken on the site to protect workers from Covid-19. “We wore a mask, but apart from that there were no other precautions enforced,” he said. He said neither he nor the other workers had been insured by the company.

While cannot independently verify the supervisor’s claim about his own illness, his description of the working and living conditions at the site match what we found on the ground, and what other workers described, when we visited the area on May 23.

Cramped in a tin shed

It was a Sunday afternoon. Workers operated earthmovers, dug around the canals near India Gate, and shifted pipelines underground.

Among them were two young crane-operators from Amritsar, Punjab, who said they worked for a Gurugram-based company, Jaspal Crane, that paid them Rs 23,000 as monthly wages. They had started work at the stretch in February. Only once had they been tested for Covid-19, they claimed – in the month of April.

While the crane-operators had no complaints as far as wage payments go – they said their contractor paid them regularly, sometimes even in advance – they pointed out their living conditions were far from ideal.

They had been living in a tin shed, propped up on the edge of Janpath road, surrounded by layers of muck and mud from the previous week’s rain. Three tin sheds stood there in a row. Each was not more than seven-feet wide, barely enough to accommodate one person, but the company had made two workers share one.

Inside their shed were a charpoy and a metal bed stand placed close to each other. There were no mattresses on either of them except a layer of plywood lay on top of the metal bed stand. Another tin shed even lacked this basic arrangement: the two workers that lived there slept on a thin layer of mattress placed on the floor.

One of the tin sheds at Janpath Road shared by two workers with a cooler one worker has bought. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

When it rained in the city over the past week, rainwater had leaked into the sheds, making it impossible to stay dry indoors, the workers said. “We were awake the whole night,” said a 23-year old. “The whole place was filled with water.”

On most other days, the tin sheds would heat up, making it hard to spend even a few hours inside every night. The 23-year-old said he spent Rs 4,500 to buy himself a cooler.

“We had to bring our own mattresses, gas stove,” said the other worker from Amritsar, a 22-year old. They cooked for themselves inside the shed, buying provisions from the Rs 1,000-weekly allowance their contractor gave them.

To relieve themselves, they had to walk at least 500 metres to access mobile toilets. And they had to fill buckets of water from a lone tanker and bathe in the open.

Said a 20-year old from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, who works as a plumber, fixing the water motors at the canals on the site: “Everyone stands in a line [in front of the water tanker] with their buckets as if we are all prison inmates.”

A water tanker along Janpath Road from which workers bathe at Central Vista. Some even washed their clothes and hung them beside the tanker. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

Overcrowded tents

A larger group of workers seemed to be living in tents, which was not able to access.

A 47-year-old man, who identified himself as a casual worker of Reckon Constructions, said six to eight workers shared one tent. There were 30-40 tents at the site, equipped with mattresses and fans, he said.

The spokesperson of the Central Public Works Department denied workers lived in tin sheds, but confirmed the presence of tents. “We have provided waterproof tent,” he said. “In size of 15 feet by 15 feet, only 6-8 workers are residing,” he said. A standard king-sized bed is 6 feet by 6.5 feet.

Originally from Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, the 47-year-old worker had been living and working on the site since May 5, and was earning Rs 400 as daily wages and an additional Rs 200, if he worked overtime, he said. He had barely worked for 15 days and was expecting payments at the end of the month.

On May 7, he had been tested for Covid-19, with ten other workers employed by the same contractor. His result was negative but the contractor did not clarify what would happen if he had tested positive. “He would tell us to go home if anyone got Covid,” the worker speculated.

After the lockdown was imposed in Delhi on April 16, many workers from the site had gone back home. Work had come to a halt in some pockets of the stretch. Some workers had stayed back, only to collect their salaries.

Life in a container

The Central Vista project aims to redevelop a stretch at the heart of Lutyens Delhi, built in the 1930s. Of the Rs 20,000-crore sanctioned for the project, Rs 971 crore will be spent on a new Parliament building, and Rs 13,450 crore on a new residences for the prime minister and the vice president.

On the site, apart from tin sheds and tents, there was a third kind of worker accommodation: metal containers. A 47-year-old worker from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, who is now back in his village, said he had lived for two months with three other workers inside a metal container – “the kind in which goods are stored”, he said.

“We all slept on the same bed and just managed somehow,” said the worker, who spoke to on the phone. He said he had been hired by Garg Builders in March. He had requested the supervisor to arrange for separate mattresses for the workers in the container that was ridden with mosquitoes, but the request was ignored.

“Our supervisor only called in the morning to ask if we started the cranes and the work,” he said. “He never asked us about what we ate or how we slept at night.” Another worker from Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, echoed the same view.

In response to the allegations of poor living conditions, Pawan, the manager at Garg Builders, said three containers were shared between four to five workers. “What problem do they have living in a 40 feet wide container?” he asked. “We gave them four mattresses. It is their headache whether they sleep separately or together. We will not go there at night to check how they sleep.”

The worker left Delhi in the first week of May, after Garg Builders stopped work at the site. Like the supervisor who had fallen ill, the worker, too, said he was yet to receive his pending wages of Rs 16,000 for the month of April.

The names of the workers have been withheld on request.