Delhi, indeed India, faced a crisis 30 years ago. The Asian Games were to be held in the capital in 1982 and little had been done. Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, appointed her son Rajiv Gandhi, who had just entered politics, to take charge of organising the stadiums, hotels, highways and flyovers – which he did successfully, albeit at some cost to the city
For the last two years India has needed a “Rajiv Gandhi” to take charge of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) that are to be held in just over 70 days in Delhi, a city which is literally crumbling in monsoon floods, incomplete highways and metro railways, broken roads and pavements, collapsing drains, and unfinished and fault-hit sports facilities.
The best that can happen when the games are held in early October is that the city is patched up enough for the players and VIPs to be transported along barricaded roads to stadiums where slipping ceiling tiles and other building faults will be quickly rectified day by day. There is currently no guarantee that food will be served, not in any organised way, nor that the security services will operate effectively.
But who is in charge? Not it seems prime minister Manmohan Singh; not Sonia Gandhi, leader of the coalition and the Congress Party; nor any other national ministers – not even M.S.Gill, the distinguished bureaucrat turned politician who is sports minister and on Saturday berated the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) chief Michael Fennell for allowing several leading international athletes not to attend the games.
Also not in charge is Sheila Dikshit, an elderly-auntie political figure who is Delhi’s chief minister and seems to have neither the constitutional authority nor the stamina, muscle, guile and managerial ability needed to control Delhi’s rival and highly corrupt authorities.
Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv’s son and dynastically in line to become prime minister one day, might have been an good candidate, as his father was 30 years ago, because he would have had the authority, vested by his mother Sonia Gandhi, to over-ride the authorities and bureaucrats and force progress. A general secretary of the Congress Party, he has been holidaying abroad in recent weeks and is today in his Uttar Pradesh constituency of Amethi.
Contrast the chaos with China’s stunning Olympic Games in 2008 or, as an example more in India’s league, look at South Africa where the brilliant FIFA World Cup ended triumphantly eight days ago.
“Pride for Africa as Spain strikes Gold” was FIFA’s website headline after the final in Johannesburg just over a week ago. “You have shown the world that you can achieve anything,” said FIFA President, Sepp Blatter. The Wall Street Journal wrote that South Africa defended itself against criticism about violent crime, disruptive labour strikes, and lacklustre organization ahead of the 2010 World Cup. “Now the country is winning widespread praise after a successful tournament, boosting its ambitions to host other major sporting events”.
There is no chance of such tributes being paid to India at the end of the Commonwealth Games.
There are four main areas of concern:
1. incomplete stadiums and other infrastructure such as highways and metro lines, some already developing construction faults – leaving little time for test runs.
2. poor quality infrastructure construction – how much will fail during the ten days of the games?
3. dug-up roads, pavements, drains and cable ducts in the name of “street scaping” that cripple many roads and markets in the centre of the city – there is no question of these projects being properly completed, so will patching-up be sufficient for the Delhi to look more or less orderly?
4. the administration of the city during the games – can effective security can be put in place and some sort of steady traffic flow be organised?
The financing of CWG is in a mess – recent reports say sponsorship is falling far short of targets. Two months ago an independent report The 2010 Commonwealth Games: Whose Wealth? Whose Commons? – found that:
– “The budget for the CWG has risen from an initial projection of Rs1,899 crore [$422m at current exchange rate] to an official figure of Rs10,000 crore [$2.2bn] and independent expert estimates of Rs. 30,000 crore [$6.6bn].
– “The expenditure on sports infrastructure is already 2,160% of the initial projected budget.
– “The increase in the Union Budget allocation for the CWG from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports rose by 6,235% from 2005-06 to 2009-10.
– “Total expenditure on infrastructure, beautification projects, and security is unknown but likely to be hundreds of crores.
– “Funds from the 2009-10 Scheduled Caste Sub Plan (Special Component Plan) in Delhi have been diverted to cover CWG related expenditures.
– “Over one lakh [100,000] families have already been evicted due to CWG related projects. 44 more JJ clusters [slums] are to be removed before the Games and an estimated 30,000-40,000 families will be displaced.
– “There is rampant exploitation of workers at CWG construction sites, including low pay, inadequate living conditions, and lack of safety equipment.”
As long ago as 2008, stories were beginning to do the rounds in Delhi (and abroad) about massive corruption and confusion at high levels in the games organization – I heard some first-hand from foreign visitors.
Not only were funds being creamed off contracts but, ironically, anti-corruption vigilance systems were adding to normal bureaucratic hassle because officials were scared not only to sign off on decisions but even to write notes on files.
Construction work on some stadiums is complete but on many it is still continuing, even on external structures. Aquatic and weightlifting events organised to test facilities have been cancelled in the past few days because arenas are not ready.
Bidding that started last year for catering contracts has just been cancelled and currently there appear to be no caterers, which means that some lucky well-connected firms will cream off huge profits (and pay huge bribes) on account of late ordering.
Double-height grey kerbstones have been laid along all central Delhi roads. They are too high for slightly lame pedestrians to tackle but looked quite smart – until they were badly painted with black and yellow stripes that are now dirty (right). Central reservations have been dug up and similarly raised in height, adorned with metal fencing, and paved with fancy stones (below). Roads that have been completed are lined with rubble – not just small stones but sizeable lumps of granite. August 31 is the latest deadline set for a clean-up.
The quality of design is appalling. Uniform signage imposed on shops in a market off central Delhi’s Lodi Road looks like badly painted British design of the 1950s. The paved areas have ludicrous polished marble.
Few people know precisely why all this has happened, but everyone is actually sure of the reasons. Contractors and suppliers have bribed officials to commission over-egged projects, and no doubt accept over-invoicing, so that both officials and companies benefit – and benefit all over again when slipshod work has to be replaced, and again when boarded-up incomplete work is completed.
It’s a sad case of history repeating itself because, though Rajiv Gandhi got the Asian Games facilities complete in time, the problems caused were very similar, as Ved Mehta recounted in a biography Rajiv Gandhi and Rama’s Kingdom. As now, there were vast numbers of overlapping government committees and over-spends, with construction workers leading miserable underfed lives.
“The whole exercise is being transformed by unscrupulous entrepreneurs with political pull into a money spinning operation,” wrote The Hindu newspaper, quoted by Mehta. “It has led to widespread hoarding and black-marketing of construction material. pushing up costs and, in the process, filling the pockets of the privileged few……”
India may seem to have changed a lot since 1982 but the basics have not really changed at all – as will be seen in early October.