Posted by: John Elliott | September 21, 2010

Are the Commonwealth Games falling apart – bridge collapses and village condemned

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.

Anti-mosquito spraying by games village (Getty Images)

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.

an excellent new state-of-the-art multi-purpose stadium – for netball in 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?


  1. only 2 days remain in the completion of the CWG and i think till now we have “muddled through” quite well

  2. Too much of fuss over a small issue. Most people forget before the next cwg. Comparing India or even to showcase its position through this event is very wrong. Except for masala media and those who cant stand our growth…no one is really giving it much value. As it is people are not visiting India for this sole reason to India. things could have been better. but they are still good now. World dont see India from the point it is written over here. We have problems but tell me a country which does not have any. A young democratic nation has just started to bring colours to them and world at large.

    Dont compare India with China .China today is what china was thousands of years back. no country can compare with them on that part.

    it seems you have tried to judge someone’s bank balance after seeing a on his wrist watch. India is a huge country,this is just an event which is happening in a small part of a city among many Indian cities……I would say keep crying on India’s growth the world really dont care at large.

  3. By muddling around you can avoid being accountable. Make money and get away!

  4. I didn’t know the fact of India being the 3rd most powerful country in the world

  5. ..sounds to me more like Congress wealth games has been playing all along.

  6. @John: I am actually scared about the CWG games..I feel there are one or two disasters still pending…

    @Albert: I wish to throw light on some of your poverty ‘facts’. When you compare percentages, please take into account the scales. Please be objective.

    The definition that London uses for poverty would be considered middle-class in India! London considers a family to be living in poverty when “the disposable income is below 60 per cent of the median income”. A person in penury still earns >300 pounds per month !!!

    The Indian Government doesn’t have such luxurious definitions of poverty. The World Bank has actually rejected the Indian definition of poverty. Over 40% of India earns _less_ than _$1.25 per day_ and this is what the world bank considers to be living in poverty. By our Indian government standards, however, only 27.5% of our population is poor. Our planning commissions and our political have been fooling the educated public with our India shining campaigns. Truth doesn’t matter to them, only perception does.

    Blind, chest-beating patriotism is dangerous for our nation. Go out, do some social work in your weekends…study the true state of our nation and then come here and comment. The poor don’t have any voice in India and our middle-class is truly ignorant.

  7. The English have arrived in Delhi, even if not at the Games Village. The Scots will travel on Saturday, the Canadians on Sunday, the Kiwis say they’ll get on a plane Tuesday, the Welsh are satisfied that everything is ready and the Australians say they are quite happy and “(the) contingent is coming”.

    The tide, choppy and lashing at India’s self-esteem, appears to be changing in the last 12 hours. What’s the reason? Two words: Cash and clout. The combination has led western governments to search for some way to send their teams to the crisis-ridden Games.

    Diplomats agree the consequences of walking away from Delhi, capital of a rising economic power, could have been grave. A US thinktank already thinks that India is third most powerful nation in the world in terms of military and economic. India’s military and economic clout is getting too big for most of the western nations to ignore it.

  8. And then parts of “fourth world” in NZ, Canada, Australia , Scotland and other toots should keep our media busy for months if not years.

  9. If I had legal authority, I would shoot three people under the same overbridge that fell over, Kalmadi, Mike Hooper and the writer of this article in FT. People like you should be shot for treason. May be someone like you had send the pictures to BBC, which was not even the true pictures. They were taken while the construction was going on. The athletes would not have been given a trashy basin. People like you should be shot dead with legal impunity to the shooter for shouting in the world.

    Please report to the Indian audience about 40% children living in poverty in London city. It will expand our horizon and parochial mind plus have something to throw our pity on.

    Indian media should really start concentrating on the negatives of the “West” starting from England and the child poverty in london city is not a bad start for few weeks. Than we can go on to 20% malnourished children in the US.

  10. If only media reporting can give a bad hit to anyones pride than most of the people in this world would have lost all the pride. Nothing is going to happen, and Indians really dont care about the CWG and western media bias. Indians are most used to the western media bias for decades. This is nothing compared to some earlier stereotyping.

    The problem is nobody cares about the Commonwealth games in India. Just look at the cricket and IPL. People care about that and they do it really well. But these games are not in Indian’s “must watch” list. I myself have never watched a commonwealth game in my life, hadn’t heard about CWG till 2008. I am 29 years old middle class dude, regular Iron Maiden concert goer in Bangalore. But CWG..nah thats not in our culture really.

  11. As someone else mentioned this is actually topic material for a book. But giving it a stab:

    This is evolution in progress.
    Till the early 80s, there was the Hindu rate of growth (~3%). India was a very poor country (and still is) which largely closed it’s doors to the outside world. Foreign media coverage was all about snake charmers and poverty.
    In the 80s opening up of some sectors coupled with borrowings from abroad and a widening fiscal deficit resulted in 5-6% growth. India was still a very poor country and no one was really concerned about what was going on.
    In the early 90s as the economy went into crisis the government was forced to open and liberalise the economy. After a few years India managed to get back to 5-6% growth.
    In the last 5-6 years 8-9% growth has been seen and India gets clubbed with China (by journalists who do not dig to deep) as one of the world’s fastest growing large economies. So everything should be hunky dory and Delhi should be like Beijing or Shanghai.
    So the question is what has changed between the pre reform and post reform period. Or more accurately what has changed the most and what has changed the least.
    Clearly the private sector has changed the most and the government sector has changed the least. Private companies which had a captive domestic market have faced competition and are now taking on the competition overseas. The entire way of doing business has changed. Private businesses which adopt a chalta hai / muddling along approach will die (or be taken over). Private managers are rewarded for success and penalised for failure.
    The private sector animal today is very different from the one seen in the pre reform era.
    The government sector (bureaucracy) animal on the other hand has not changed. The way of doing work is still much the same. The lack of accountability and the absence of an emphasis on outcomes very much remains. Superimpose on this a political leadership which largely consists of the same foogies who were merrily fiddling while the country burned during the socialist heydays.
    There is no strong drive/desire in the political leadership to make transformational changes in the institutional framework of governance. At most 5-6 ministers understand the magnitude of changes that are needed. These ministers have varying degrees of effectiveness.
    So one can safely say that chalta hai/anything goes /muddled along approach is very much alive in the government and bureaucracy.
    Enter into any of the malls (private initiative) in Delhi or Gurgaon. They are close to what you can expect in most parts of the world. Exit these onto the road and the brilliance of the Government of India is all too evident. In case you are wondering, many of the leading agencies behind the CWG infrastructure are all government arms – Delhi Development Authority, Central Public Works Department , Delhi Municipal Corporation etc. If any of these were listed the road to being a billionaire would be very clear. Short them to perpetuity.
    So at the cost of some simplification Sensex at 20,000 represents private sector growth. CWG mess represents government sector brilliance.
    The private sector is evolving at a much faster pace. It is trying to become best in class. The government sector on the other hand is changing at a much much slower pace.
    In some places the government sector changes have been faster/better than expectations (governance of stock exchanges etc) and the results are there for all to see. Once in a while one gets lucky and gets an able and effective minister or bureaucrat who makes a visible change.
    So in short, the muddling along will continue as government sector changes happen at a much slower pace. Nonetheless there is change in the government sector and the hope is that over time these changes become significant in themselves.

  12. I was asked in a comment (below) from ‘Arayans’ what I think are the reasons why “India suffers from a chronic habit of muddling-through” and a “slack-in-everything disorder”.

    This is a subject for a full piece on the blog, and could be even a book, but, briefly, I think it partly stems from India’s proven ability to improvise and fix things, often at the last moment.
    Making the best of what was available became an art during the shortages and inefficiencies of the pre-1991 controlled economy.
    There is also a belief that, if allowed to fester for long enough, a problem will go away – as it often does.
    But the games are an international event with a real deadline that has challenged this cop out.
    Whether there is something deeper in the culture I’m not sure, and I hope people will write comments about this.
    This is a very brainy and innovative country which is usually able, as I said, to make the best of whatever is available.
    Some commentators also point to a lack of willingness to engage in teamwork, and a lack of focus on co-ordination.
    I have noticed for years that it is very hard to get continuity of excellence and quality in many areas of life here.
    Combine that with the spin-offs of corruption, and maybe it seems best to fix things at the last moment and muddle through, rather than going for the long haul and on-time delivery.

  13. Dear John,

    Games will go through without any doubt.
    All economists had given a phrase in past decades, as called “Hindu rate of growth”; but same has been overtaken.
    This indicates vast gap in understanding Indian mind set by them and same is true with you.
    I hope you will go little deep in your analysis in future . And you will certainly do after successfull completion of CWG.
    I hope you will agree to amend your understanding of India then.

    with regards

  14. John

    Do Not Worry, All is Well, we will muddle through as we have for the past 60+ years. Long live Indian Polity and Bolity (Bureaucracy)

  15. OK. Since I authoured the “muddling through” comment and am now in Delhi-Gurgaon, I agree that the surroundings are an unmitigated disaster. The only bright spot is the Metro which has allowed me to breeze in to my meetings in Delhi in far greater comfort and speed than bumping along the potholed and lane-restricted roads. Judging by your blogs and the comments I receive from what I write, the indolence of the “silent” middle class seems to be up for blame. It would be worth revisiting this topic in a couple of months time to see how alert/short memories are. All this punishment might just be worth it if we learn a lesson and never expose ourselves to such shame again. If civil society needs a cause this is it.

  16. This is a sad, sad event whatever views one has about India’s management of its internal and foreign affairs. One always hopes the host country can shine when they take on worthy events like the Commonwealth Games.

  17. I call it “the acceptance syndrome” which bedevills India. We are a nation of sheepish “acceptors” if there can be such a term in the Dictionary. We usually do not wish to rock the boat even if we are aware that things are terribly wrong! Though Delhi has a disproportionate populations of intellectuals and thinkers and social activists , I wonder why no one used RTI to launch a detailed investigation into the embezzlement and corruption in contracts and shoddy work of CWG!

  18. I have never been sanguine about the Games going well. But I thought they would go well enough to get by. All of this is much worse than most of us expected, and I think Indians have today realised the international embarrassment this has caused the country – whatever happens now. This may go down as the most expensive re-branding exercise a country has gone through! As for the Sensex hitting 20,000: it is hot money and only going into blue chips; it scarcely represents a vote of confidence.
    Maybe the best would now be for teams to start pulling out and then a whole-scale collapse ensuing – I am not sure we can take another month of this agony.
    If there is accountability, how high will it go?

  19. may i elicit a response on why you believe that india suffers from a chronic habit of muddling-through?
    to phrase the request better:
    that india suffers from a slack-in-everything disorder, is an undisputable fact. what one would like to hear (from those that believe that they have critically observed the nation) is what they believe are the reasons for such an outlook to have become so deeply ingrained in a nation’s psyche.
    i fully appreciate that it is humanly impossible for any author to cover the gamut of probable causes for such a national mindset, but it’d be nice to read the views that the author holds 🙂

    thanks – I have written an answer to this comment above – je

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