ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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An Illusion Built on Tragedy

Continuing the Central Vista redevelopment amidst the pandemic reveals a sinister stubbornness.

In January 2021, the Supreme Court in a 2:1 judgment dismissed a petition challenging the construction of the new Parliament building. While the majority judgment saw no grounds for stopping the work, the dissenting judgment questioned some of the clearances granted, as the Court reprimanded the government for continuing work despite a host of pending pleas. The Central Vista Redevelopment Project plans to redevelop 86 acres in the national capital at an estimated cost of `20,000 crore. This involves demolishing several prominent structures, including the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) and the National Archives annexe, while constructing a new Parliament building, Prime Minister’s, and vice president’s residence as well as several government offices designed to flank Rajpath. Recently, the Supreme Court directed the Delhi High Court to decide on pending petitions challenging the construction in the Central Vista project on the grounds of the health and safety of those involved, considering the COVID-19 pandemic. The petitioners argued that the current construction activity amid rising deaths and infections, constitutes a threat to the health and safety of workers and employees working at these construction sites. This petition follows public outcry questioning the need for such extravagant expenditure when there is a severe shortage of health and other essential supplies, as citizens scamper in search of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, and a severe shortage in vaccines becomes evident with each passing day.

Considering the current context, public interest should ideally serve as a moral compass for the government to stop further construction. Unfortunately, despite widespread international criticism on its handling of the pandemic, the ruling dispensation is hell-bent on continuing work. An overt stubbornness and unwillingness to relent is not surprising considering their record so far, but, in such tragic circumstances, what can possibly explain such a callous response?

The Central Vista, after all, is a construction site, and like all construction sites, grand and small, the condition of those who build it serves as the first reminder of what this callousness is part of. The petitioners have raised concerns on the conditions of those working at these sites. Reports reveal that construction workers, housed in different camps, are transported to the sites, where they must perform 12-hour shifts in the seething heat with the imminent threat of disease. While the subcontractors claim that all statutory provisions are met, workers whose reported experiences are trickling out from these walled sites, reveal that non-payment of wages, lack of adequate safety equipment, and long working hours are common. Some of them have considered leaving the sites but fear the long journey home and the sheer uncertainty of unemployment. Like all construction sites, the Central Vista of the republic does not fare any better as it still repeats the story of construction workers building the foundations of the finest structures, working in unsafe conditions, unsure of their next payment, or who their principal employer is. Meanwhile, capital and the state continue to evade the burden of accountability—as principal employers—through a careful array of subcontracting. Ironically, as these workers build the Parliament building, it is this very institution that passed the social security code which repeals the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, leaving great uncertainty to the millions of construction workers on the status of their social security fund.

Then there is the problem of clearances. Somehow this reminds us of another familiar motif in the recent past. While loss of green spaces is mourned, the projects also reveal another way in which capital and the state continue to function. The elaborate way in which this grand project has been parcelled into a range of different projects, amidst tweaking of regulatory institutions, has meant that most of the constituent projects have avoided any form of environmental clearance, or any form of public scrutiny.

It is not uncommon for different dispensations at different times to rebuild cities or build new ones. In fact, the current Central Vista is an outcome of such an exercise, where a new capital was built to show an India flourishing under the British rule. The grandeur and stylistic architecture were meant to put forth a vision of Pax Britannica synchronous with Indian values. Hence, it is not surprising that the ruling dispensation wishes to herald a new India. The haste is not surprising either, since the pace at which it has attempted to transform the institutional landscape in the capital, both democratic and bureaucratic, it was a matter of time that the buildings that house those institutions would follow suit.

Undoubtedly, despite a worsening health crisis, continuing the project represents a similar approach taken in dealing with all opposition, whether in Parliament or outside. The response to the legal petitions, whether regarding the health of workers or the clearances and public scrutiny in many ways, while obviously callous, reveals a deeper malady. The Parliament building is being readied for the 75th year of independence and is seen as a vanity project for the current dispensation. However, the displays of grandeur and opulence appear to be a proxy for an aspiration outside the walls of Parliament, of the wealthy classes, of capital that wishes to see a national capital that exemplifies their own prosperity under this regime. The brick and mortar of this illusory Pax Indica is in full display in the way an elected government is stubbornly pushing forward a sinister illusion that is adding to the pain and suffering of the people.

 

Updated On : 31st May, 2021

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