Friday, 17 September 2010

Delhi: Chased away by the Commonwealth Games

The BBC reports: Every day for the past 30 years, Ram Prakash has been selling fruit in Delhi's Sarojini Nagar market. He earns between 150 and 200 rupees ($3 and $4) a day, with which he supports the nine members of his family. But now the Indian capital is getting ready to host the 11-day Commonwealth Games in October and Ram Prakash has been told by the civic authorities to pack up and leave. "I have been told to go," he says. "They told me: disappear from Delhi and don't come back until the Games are over." There are roughly 350,000 street vendors in Delhi and the civic authorities want every one out. Hundreds of ice-cream carts which have done brisk business at the Delhi landmark, the India Gate, for decades have been told they are no longer welcome there.
"Mr Dixit, of the hawkers' association, says: They don't want foreigners to see that India is poor. So if they get rid of the poor, there will be no poverty. It's a good plan - he adds, with bitter irony."

1600 Blueline buses (privately-operated public buses) were banned from the streets of Delhi last week causing massive inconvenience to commuters who couldn't get to work. Certainly they are eyesores, polluting rusting hulks that have been notorious in the past for crushing people to death due to their money-making haste and consequent bad driving. But the action is strictly a cosmetic measure, they have only been banned for the duration of the Games and will be back 'warts and all' the minute the games end and the foreigners have left.

All the Bangladeshi immigrant workers have also been run off which comprises a significant percentage of the female domestic help there. It appears that the authorities were always aware that they were illegal immigrants. They were also aware that India has recently seen a spate of terrorist attacks apparently originating in Bangladesh. But so far, the threat to ordinary Delhi citizens was deemed acceptable and the authorities turned a blind eye to their presence. The threat to foreigners is not as acceptable so they've been removed. Apparently once the games are over, it will ok for them to come back and resume being the ordinary daily garden variety terrorist threat they are supposed to be.

The irony is that all this hardship being caused to Delhi by her authorities are in the name of a sports event so badly managed by the same authorities that it has been named (by an ex-Sports Minister no less) the Common Whore Games. He was referring to the only thing that seemed to be on target for the games, the growth of the sex industry in Delhi and the provision of condom vending machines. 

The run-up to the games has seen (so far), the collapse of a pedestrian footbridge attached to a stadium, the collapse of a stadium roof (by an un-authorised man walking on it!) and the collapse of a bed when one of the Indian athletes moved into his allocated accommodation and decided to sit on his - all events in rapid succession. The athlete also happened to be a boxer who won a gold medal at the last CWG in 2006 and is one of India's (few) medal hopes.

As per most news media, Rs. 60,000 Crore was the original allocated budget for these Games. In Indian parlance, the official economic term "Crore" means an addition of another 7 zeros after the amount. So that is 600,000,000,000 Indian Rupees. To give an idea of living costs in India, a Tata Nano car currently costs about 120,000 Indian Rupees. For the same amount, the government could have gifted a car to 5 million Indian families (5,000,000). In the process of whoring out the Games, the budget has far surpassed that  Rs.60,000 Crore amount by an additional Rs.10,000 Crore (and counting). This is even more astonishing considering how cheap labour is in India compared to most of the world.

So far the amount spent has been Rs.70,000 Crores (70,000,00,00,000) which is about 15 Billion US dollars - and project costs are still escalating since most contractors are behind schedule and claiming delay damages. Again for comparison, the Government’s massive JNNURM programme for Urban Renewal is disbursing funds to build infrastructure, strengthen governance and help the urban poor in 65 Indian cities over 7 years and is budgeted at 20 Billion US dollars. 

Essentially the Commonwealth Games have already spent three-quarters of that amount to build 10 stadiums, some athletes’ accommodation and (sort of) beautify 1 city - none of which have actually been completed or will be completed to any international degree of quality.

This brings to mind what John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said during the financial crisis of 2008 referring to the bailout fund of $700bn proposed by the US Treasury to buy back bad debt held by banks:
"One of the ironies about this financial crisis is that it makes action on poverty look utterly achievable. It would cost $5bn to save six million children's lives. World leaders could find 140 times that amount for the banking system in a week. How can they tell us that action for the poorest is too expensive?"

To put it in local perspective, it has been estimated by the Indian government itself that approximately 77% of Indians, or about 836 million people, live on less than Rs.20 a day. That’s about 0.5 US dollars a day. So how many lives in India could Rs.700,000,000,000 have brought out of poverty? Even so, the cost may have been justified if the event had been a well-managed testament to the country's talent and skills - if it had been beneficial for a severely ailing national sports programme.

As the same ex-Sports Minister mentioned, while discussing budgets for sports in India
"The Planning Commission refused approval for Rs.6,000 crore to be spent over a period of 10 years, while we were spending Rs. 60,000 crore on the CWG. The annual expenditure for panchayat-level sport has been less than Rs. 200 crore."

"Panchayat" level sports refers to the expenditure on sports at the village or very grassroots level in India. The level, presumably, where money should be spent for talent to be nurtured so that India has more than 2 Olympic medals to show for her population of 1.2 billion people. It still isn't clear how one 11-day event is going to improve the condition of sports in India especially when the bulk of that money does not appear to have gone to sportspersons, coaches, therapists, or training facilities in schools, colleges, villages, towns and cities in India. Most of it seems to have gone into the pockets of a corrupt nexus of politicians, officials and contractors.

On the other hand, what this one 11-day event is successfully managing to do is ruin the country's image everywhere in the world and, somehow, for even her own citizens. The Games has done something that no one thought possible, it has managed to shock even the blasé Indian populace who thought they were well inured to extreme levels of mismanagement, corruption and inefficiency. But evidently, our government still has the capacity to surprise us.

Author: Shahana Dastidar

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