India is famously a country of contradictions where one can safely say that everything and its opposite is true. Rarely can that have been more evident than it is today, with India’s poor reputation for inefficiency, bad governance, shoddy work and corruption being demonstrated by international rejection of conditions at the Commonwealth Games village, just 13 days before the games are due to begin with 8,000 athletes – and by the collapse of a new steel arch footbridge at the main Nehru Stadium’s car park, injuring more than 20 people.
At exactly the time that this news was breaking, the stock market’s main Mumbai index breached 20,000 for the first time since January 2008, and it was reported that a US-based think tank has rated India the third most powerful country in the world after the US and China.
“Indian mujahideen issue a warning & despite that, stock markets climb to new highs. Indian resilience continues to astonish,” wrote Anand Mahindra, a leading and ever-optimistic industrialist (on Twitter), taking another slant by referring to the terrorist shooting of two Taiwanese in Old Delhi on Sunday.
The collapse of the footbridge is presumably (it is too soon to be sure) a result of India’s shoddy workmanship, especially in construction. There have been many reports in recent months of poor work at various venues, with parts of structures and finishes collapsing, and there has been a real fear that there could be a construction failure during the games.
My last piece on this blog was a spoof on the situation in India, as if I was visiting another country. But today’s contradictions beat my tale because here we see India’s huge commercial and international success and importance clashing with the corrupt governance and muddled indolent administration that has led to the disastrous run-up to the games.
This has ruined what was supposed to be a showcase event that would pitch India alongside China following the spectacular Olympics last year, and a month before the Asian Games in southern China in November.
Responding to the spoof, an old contact wrote from his retirement hideaway in the Himalayan foothills that “we have muddled through for sixty years and remain one nation in spite of the fissiparous pressures from within and without.” I emailed him a reply saying, “come down from the hills and drive round Delhi as I have this afternoon and see the mess that ‘muddling through’ has created!”
The mess in Delhi is indeed appalling with sidewalks and markets partially dug up, sports venues uncompleted, decorative placards being vandalised, and condemnation of the conditions at the games village that was opened with much self-congratulation last week, and the bridge collapse.
The bridge that collapsed today is one of a pair being built across parking areas and access roads near the main Nehru Stadium. The second bridge is only half built, so both were way behind schedule.
The city is being hit not just by threats of terrorism, demonstrated by Sunday’s attack, but also by the heaviest monsoon rains and floods for 30 years. Those rains, and pools of water on open construction sites, have led to a serious plague of mosquito-spread dengue fever – vividly illustrated last week by the FT’s Delhi bureau chief whose children became ill.
It is indeed beginning to look as if India’s ability to “muddle through” is collapsing. The government is of course not responsible for the rains, but it can be faulted for agreeing to hold them at the end of the monsoon season. “No worry, we’ll muddle through,” the politicians and bureaucrats no doubt said when they were bidding for the games to come to Delhi.
The authorities can also be blamed for not providing adequate drainage, and for ludicrously digging up huge swathes of Delhi’s roads, side-walks and markets for beautifying “street scaping”, which has been an unmitigated disaster. Scarcely any completed area looks better than it did before, some are worse, and much is unfinished. “No worry, we’ll muddle through,” the politicians and bureaucrats no doubt said, as they eagerly collected contractors’ hefty kickbacks, with the prospect of more rewards when remedial digging begins after the games.
Some of the venues are excellent – I saw three of them last week – but the authorities are responsible for the corruption and general mismanagement of the games’ facilities. “No worry, we’ll muddle through and not get caught,” the politicians and bureaucrats no doubt said.
And they are still saying it today, in slightly different words, after being lambasted over conditions in many of the games village’s 34 residential blocks by foreign teams, led by New Zealand and Scotland, and by the Commonwealth Games Federation.
England has also said that, though some general areas in the village are good, the quarters it was offered were just not acceptable – some were flooded by monsoon rains.
Mike Hooper, the federation’s ceo, said that many of the residential towers were “filthy and uninhabitable”, a point echoed by others.
The problem is that the flats are either incomplete, or suffer from new buildings’ usual electrical, plumbing and woodwork snags, or have quickly become dilapidated. Bedrooms and bathrooms have not been cleaned after being invaded by construction workers (and stray dogs) seeking refuge in torrential rain from their own grossly inadequate labour camps.
Hooper said the village had the potential to be the best ever provided for the games, but some blocks were “so filthy you can’t occupy them”. The Scottish team said when it arrived that its flats were “unsafe and unfit for human habitation”.
“Are the Commonwealth Games falling apart,” asked a tv channel this evening. It’s a good question.
Would it be better for India if they were postponed, rather than the competitors having to face the problems of incomplete facilities, potentially dangerous construction, terrorism threats, incessant rain and flooding, and dengue fever?
It would probably only take one leading country to withdraw to create a landslide exit. Will that happen? India could blame the rains and terrorism. Or will everyone continue to suffer and muddle through for the next two weeks, and then for the ten days of the games?