A WHO report in early January last year confirmed that a cluster of people in Wuhan China had the respiratory illness called the Coronavirus. By month end, the first case had also appeared in India. At the time, the formal proposal for the Rs. 20,000 crore Central Vista project and the new parliament building was being pushed through its bureaucratic hurdles, so Indian attention was on other things. By early February however more cases began to appear in Kerala, Maharashtra and elsewhere. Preparations were also on to receive Donald Trump for a 3-hour Rs. 100 crore Namaste India reception in Ahmedabad at India’s largest cricket stadium. Decorative palms were being planted on the airport highway, roads resurfaced for an additional Rs. 500 crore.
In late February, Covid cases began to rise. Travellers from Italy and Saudi Arabia infected small groups of Indians, and the first official Covid death appeared in the papers. By then Coronavirus was already recognized as a public health problem in Europe and the US. India too was in its sights. But national projects were underway. Land-use and zoning changes for the Central Vista buildings were being pushed through the clearing process to hasten the construction time-line. With rising Covid numbers, the official count reached 11,000 in early March. Delhi recorded a doubling of confirmed infections, more than 90% of them linked to the Markaz congregation. Nizammuddin was declared a Covid containment zone. 40,000 people who had been in touch with the Tabligi worshippers were in quarantine when a civil petition against the Union of India was filed in the Delhi High Court for flagrant constitutional violations of land use norms pertaining to the Central Vista.
With infections growing, the Prime Minister in a televised speech announced on March 24th, a complete country-wide lockdown for three weeks. The Covid spread was so serious it needed draconian measures. However within this lockdown period in April the new parliament building was granted environment clearance from the Ministry of Environment, and a tender for its construction awarded. All this, while hungry and distressed migrants were exiting cities on foot because trains and buses had been suspended. To give hope to the poor trudging to their villages, another national broadcast by the prime minister suggested switching off lights at a specified time and shining torches into the sky. A record of the numbers that died in the movement was not made, or not made available to the public.
With cities physically closed, the Reserve Bank forecast a grim picture for the economy, stating that the lockdown’s impact would be felt on industry, businesses, income and employment for a long time. A national candle light vigil to harness good vibrations amid the bleak Covid situation is held for nine minutes in the evening of April 5th. People appear on balconies, light diyas, and burst crackers all across India. Coronavirus cases jump two weeks later to a new high of 18,000. By the time of the third official lockdown in May, the number is 100,000, with 5000 deaths. The country begins its Unlock phase.
By July 1, when the country is in the second phase of Unlock India, the infected number reaches 600,000 with 18,000 deaths. Ground-breaking ceremonies for the Ayodhya Ram Mandir takes place the following month after priests calculate the auspicious position of the planets. The Prime Minister leads the Bhoomi Pujan ceremony, thus marking the formal start of construction for the Rs. 1100 crore complex. At the time, the government also issued instructions for the building of 150 new oxygen generation plants, and upgrades for ICU beds in all public hospitals across the country. And the Rs. 12,000 crore Char Dham highway gets final phase go-ahead for the 700-kilometer roadway connecting Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamanotri.
In October, the government announces that according to their mathematical model the pandemic has peaked and should now steadily decline. Just then, a new mutant Sars variant is detected in India. Barricades are set up all along India Gate for the start of construction of the Central Vista buildings. Despite high numbers of infections, life begins to return to normal. In December, Agra Metro construction is inaugurated by the prime minister among other major projects.
In January 2021, WHO warns of a second wave. But with numbers beginning to fall, the government announces that India has successfully managed to defeat the virus. At Davos the prime minister claims that India solved its own problems and helped the world fight the pandemic. Before long, the country plunges into what it does best: elections, religious festivals, large-scale construction, pilgrimages, political rallies and weddings – events that invite big crowds in contained places. 3.5 million pilgrims are expected at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar; rallies are mounted in the multi-phased Bengal elections. Clubs, markets, restaurants, and malls open. After a year of isolation, everyone – except the migrants – is on the move.
Then on April 5th, a sudden spike of 100,000 new infections hits the country. Case numbers increase every day, four days later rising to one million. The 3000 infections in Bengal escalate to 100,000 at the end of the elections. Some sadhus who test positive at the Kumbh take a second dip to cleanse the virus. There is no sign of the 150 new oxygen plants; except for Maharashtra and Karnataka, no state has upgraded its public health facilities. Ten days into the lockdown in Delhi, when all outdoor construction activity is banned, the Central Vista project is allowed to proceed as an essential service. The CPWD invites bids for three ministry buildings at Rs. 3400 crore the day India records the highest surge of infections in the world. On April 30th, the figure reaches 18.5 million, with 200,000 deaths. Crematoria across India suggest a number five times.