Workers described their 12-hour shifts and fears of falling sick.
“No, I don’t want to talk about the Central Vista project. My blood pressure will go up,” said Arun Kumar, 58, leaning against his ice cream cart opposite the now dug up roads of Rajpath.
The sun was scorching hot. A year ago, on a day like this, Kumar would have pushed his cart down the roads of India Gate and people would have crowded around him to buy ice cream. This is what he had been doing every single day for the last four years of his life.
Now, Kumar stands for hours outside the barricaded construction site hoping that at some point, the construction labourers will turn to his ice cream for some respite from the heat. It’s likely to take months before he can peddle his wares in Rajpath again.
In the middle of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic the Central Vista Redevelopment Project came under fire. Citizens questioned the need for such an extravagant project while dead bodies piled up, infection rate increased and hospitals began running out of oxygen.
On May 11, the government told the Delhi High Court that arrangements were made for construction workers to stay on site and continue their work while maintaining Covid-appropriate behaviour.
Two days later, the media was turned away from the construction site. On May 13, sign boards cropped up at the Rajpath construction site, barring photography and video recordings. On May 17, when Newslaundry visited the site to document the ongoing situation, we were stopped and told to delete our footage.
But on May 31, in response to a plea seeking the halting of the construction given the pandemic, the Delhi High Court rejected the petition and levied a fine of Rs 1 lakh on the petitioners. The Central Vista project was termed by the court as “essential and vital”.
The ongoing work
The government has announced that the construction of the new parliament will conclude by the winter session of 2022. The redevelopment of Central Vista Avenue – which stretches from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate – is expected to be done by the end of this year.
According to the plan drawn out by the central public works department, an estimate of 4,58,820 square metres of built area is slated to be demolished. This includes the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, Shastri Bhavan, Krishi Bhavan, Vigyan Bhavan, vice-president’s residence, National Museum, Jawahar Bhavan, Nirman Bhavan, Udyog Bhavan, Raksha Bhavan, and INS Hutments. While the primary building of the National Archives will not be demolished, its annexe will be razed.
At the moment, no demolishing process has begun; offices first need to be relocated and then the land prepared for demolition and construction. Construction began on February 4 on the three-km stretch of Rajpath called the Central Vista Avenue and the new parliament’s construction began on January 14. Meanwhile, the office of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts was shifted on July 1 to the refurbished Janpath hotel.
Outside the Janpath hotel, guards refused to allow the media to enter. “You cannot walk in and meet anyone. You need an appointment with someone inside,” security personnel told Newslaundry.
The IGNCA area is home to 1,838 trees of 60 different species. The CPWD said in May that a budget of Rs1.86 crore had been set aside for the transplanting of the trees which would have to be done within 60 days. The plan was to replant the trees a year later within the newly constructed premises.
Last week, however, the Delhi forest and wildlife department issued a notice that the site will be categorised as “forest area”. Hence, as per the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, 1994, the central public works department, the nodal agency and project developer of the Central Vista redevelopment project, has to now send a fresh plan to transplant the displaced trees.
When Newslaundry reached out to Bimal Patel, president of the architectural firm HCP Design and the chief architect of the Central Vista project, his firm told Newslaundry, “The construction is progressing at a good pace. The pandemic slowed the pace of construction for a while, understandably.”
All work, no rest
With the central government pushing for completion within a tight deadline, life on the construction site has not been easy.
At the Central Secretariat metro station stop, yellow construction barricades lined the back of the station entry point. Behind the barricades, the Central Vista construction is underway. Construction workers squeezed through a small gap in the barricades to buy tea from a tea stall.
The tea stall was crowded: tea was continuously brewed, paan was bought, short Gold Flake cigarettes exchanged hands, sometimes with small packets of biscuits. At the stall was Devi Charan, 45, a construction worker originally from Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh. He’s been working at the site since July 2.
Charan said that ever since the pandemic, work has been sparse. So, when a contractor got in touch and told him about the Central Vista project, Charan, who had been sitting at home for over a month, jumped at the opportunity.
“But I didn’t realise how difficult it was going to be. I’ve been working on different construction projects since 2013 and I’ve never worked like this before,” he said. Labourers are expected to work 12-hour days on site, he said, from 8 am to 8 pm seven days a week. They’re paid around Rs 12,000 per month.
“I end up spending Rs 5,000-6,000 on food, medicines and other things,” he said. “Another Rs 6,000 I save for home.”
Charan explained that labourers lose a day’s salary, around Rs 400, if they take a day off. “Whether it is raining or scorching hot, we have to work,” he said. “Otherwise they won’t pay us. And there’s absolutely no shade for us to take a moment’s rest. One day, it was raining so heavily that we simply could not work anymore. So we paused at around 3 pm to wait for the rains to subside. I was shocked because they cut money from us for doing that. How can they do that?”
Labourers like Charan live in colonies in East Delhi’s Sarai Kale Khan, around nine km from the construction site. The contractors pay their rent. Every morning at 7.30 am, a bus shuttles them to the site and then drops them back by 8.30 pm.
“I leave my bed at 5 am,” Charan said.”We all cook quickly, eat and pack our lunch. One of us goes to the bazaar to buy vegetables. In the evening we come back and there’s just enough time to cook, wash clothes and sleep.”
He added that he hasn’t had a chance to go home and visit his family. “But I’m going home on August 20. It’s Rakshabandhan and my sisters will come home. I guess I have to sacrifice my payment and hope they take me back once I come back.”
Barely 15 minutes into his tea break, Charan’s supervisor walked up to us. “What are you doing here?” he said angrily. “Hurry up. You need to get back to work. And stop talking to strangers.” Charan departed and Mukesh Shukla, 28, approached this reporter, saying he wanted to speak to the media.
“I have a complaint,” said Shukla. “Will you hear me out?”
Shukla is also from Prayagraj and has been working on the site for the past month as a construction supervisor. “I wouldn’t do this job if I had a choice,” he admitted. “Right now, I am in a lot of debt so I took it up.”
Like Charan, Shukla lives in Sarai Kale Khan and works 12-hour shifts, earning Rs 15,000 per month. “My problem is with water,” he told Newslaundry. “Initially when I came, they used to give us clean Bisleri bottles. Now, we get water from a tanker. It stinks and I am scared of falling sick.”
In May, the central government had told the high court that labourers at the Central Vista site will have “access to immediate attention and proper care”. While the site does have an in-house doctor, Shukla said, “Whenever we go to him, he gives us a prescription and says there are no medicines with him. So, everyone has to spend extra money though we were told we’d be given medicines here.”
Several workers also told Newslaundry they haven’t been vaccinated against Covid, though the district administration said in June that it was launching a special vaccination drive for the 1,500 workers employed on the project site.
About a kilometre away from the tea stall, near the construction site of the new parliament building, the barricades are even taller and the security is tight. Security personnel are posted at different entry points and only workers and project employees can enter.
Two workers – Kulu, 32, and Azad Ali, 40, both from Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri – exited the project site and headed towards a food stall nearby. When asked about their experience onsite, Ali said, “The main problem is the smell of the water they give us to drink. I try not to think about it because I need water.”
The two finished their meal and then set off to a nearby market. “Sorry, we can’t spend much time talking,” Kulu said. “ We never get a day off and our salaries are being cut today because we’ve asked for half a day to go to the bazaar and buy some vegetables and a pair of pants.”
None of the workers Newslaundry spoke to agreed to be photographed.
When Newslaundry contacted Bimal Patel, president of HCP Design, to enquire about the conditions of the workers, his firm said, “Kindly contact CPWD regarding this.”
Vijay P Rao, senior architect at CPWD, told Newslaundry: “I cannot answer these questions. I am merely a government employee. HCP Design is implementing the government’s plan and so only they can answer this.”
Names of some people changed to protect their identities.
Utkarsh Tripathi contributed with research inputs.