Wednesday, September 29, 2010

India: Commonwealth Games fiasco exposes development myth

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Republished courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

Photo Credit:: Commonwealth Games

SINGAPORE (IDN) - By sheer coincidence I happened to be in Delhi on the very day the Commonwealth Games fiasco was unravelling, exposing the shortcomings of the GDP based economic growth model.

India won the bid to stage the Commonwealth Games seven years ago, becoming only the second country in Asia (Malaysia hosted it in 1998) to stage the world's third largest sporting extravaganza. With the country boasting an economic growth rate of 6-8 percent during most of the past decade the government pumped in billions of dollars in what was seen as India's coming out party.

India was keen to show to the world that they could organise a show as good as -- or even better -- than that put up by its Asian rival China in 2008, when Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. But just about a week before the opening of the Games on October 3, the Yamuna River, on whose banks the Athletes Village has been built, swelled due to unseasonal monsoon rains thus flooding its surroundings.

When Commonwealth Games officials started to arrive in the Indian capital, the Games Village was not ready for occupation and pavements of most roads leading to the major venues were being paved, new trees planted and walls painted. When a New Zealand official described the Games Village as "filthy" and "unhygienic" it touched a raw nerve in the Indian psyche with the local media getting in to frenzy at first in defending the national honour, but, soon their attention was focused internally, which generated a heated debate in the country about the costs and corruption associated with the Commonwealth Games project.

The event involving 71 nations that were former British colonies is believed to be the costliest in its 80 year old history. The original budget was US$ 75 million but the final costs were expected to be about US$ 8 billion.

An Indian anti-corruption body, Central Vigilance Commission reported on September 24 that after inspecting 16 Games sites they have found a number of irregularities and suspect practices by contractors. Times of India reported on September 26 that fake certificates have been issued to pass sub-standard work and material, when the deadline for completion of work was approaching.

Thus, the event has now been dubbed as the "Corruption Games" by many commentators in India, and questions are being asked whether this money could have been better spent on improving India's sporting and rural infrastructure.

"The (Commonwealth Games) debate needs to be shorn of the 'Games as nationalism' tag. A high-pitched battle between those who see every stadium leak as a disgrace and those who believe that a beautified national capital will be a source of pride will serve little purpose," argues Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor in Chief, IBN 18 Network.

"Instead, we need to focus on what is really the root of the present controversy: a prevailing culture, which is rooted in sloth, corruption and opacity. The Commonwealth Games are not the problem; they are only a symptom of the wider crisis that confronts new India."

"In the euphoria over eight per cent growth, we sometimes forget that we are still ranked a lowly 84th in the Transparency International corruption index. When a society is steeped in corruption, it would be unrealistic to expect that a 40,000 crore rupee (US$ 8 billion) event will be above it all," he added.

Much of the blame for the Commonwealth Games fiasco has been directed at Suresh Kalmadi, a parliamentarian of the ruling Congress Party and chairman of the Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee. He has steadfastly refused to take any blame claiming that come October 3, when the Games will open, everything will be in top order.

"The Commonwealth Games is symptomatic of the deeper decay, decadence, and debilitation of our moral and ethical standards. It is not just about Suresh Kalmadi. It is about much more," notes Sanjay Jha, author of a political blog ''.

Ordinary Indians have been angered by high profile political appointees who are rumoured to have made large amounts of money from construction contracts through corrupt practices, with a Times of India poll showing that 97 percent of respondents numbering over 17,500 people, saying that Games bosses have tarred India's image.

But, Jha points out that, while multi-billion rupee corruption scandals are surfacing almost daily, be it in organising sporting extravaganzas, real estate dealings, company accounting or whatever, at the same time anti-corruption characters, who were very popular in Bollywood films in the 1970s and television serials in the 1980s have now all but disappeared.

"In India corruption is now deemed a function of size with a unanimous agreement on 'Yes, we are all corrupt, but he is a bigger racketeer than me, blah blah.' Thus, the small-time crook if caught stealing actually begins to have a self-righteous belief that he is only an unfortunate pawn," he laments.

Former Cabinet Minister Arun Nehru writing in 'The Asian Age' on September 26 observed that the anger regarding the Games mess is mounting because it hurts the Indian pride. "Over the last decade India has proved that it is capable of bigger and greater things. Indian talent in every field has made its presence felt in the global community," he noted. But, he pointed out that though the Games were awarded in 2003 no building work started until 2008 and "at the 11th hour, various agencies were asked to produce a miracle under a tainted chain of command".

"If we started work in 2006 instead of 2008, we would have completed everything a year in advance and tested everything over a six-month period," wrote Nehru.

In an interview with Zee TV News, former Sports Minister Mani Shankar Iyer disclosed a number of corrupt deals and excessive spending which shed further light on how the government has spent huge sums of money on extravaganzas while ignoring the need to develop Indian sporting talent.

India holds the dubious record of having won the least amount of medals on a per capita basis in the history of the Olympic Games. Thus, when he was the sports minister, he opposed the huge expenditure on the Commonwealth Games, and instead proposed a sports development programme to provide basic facilities for children interested in various sports at village level.

He was told that India was too poor to do that. But, he pointed out in the interviews that the same government spent some US$ 29 million (Rs 29 crores) to send three Bollywood stars to the closing ceremony of the last Commonwealth Games to "hold the banner for the next event" while only US$ 3 million as spent on the Indian athletes who took part in the Games.

Shankar Iyer argues that if just 10 percent of the amount spent on the Games is spent to provide better facilities and training to India's children "no one would stop us from becoming a sports power like China".

Alok Tiwari, deputy resident editor of Times of India's Nagpur desk, argues that the Games fiasco has helped to bring back on ground a nation too drunk on its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth rates. "Everybody thought that hosting the Games would be easy with a trillion dollar economy growing at eight percent a year. We now know better," he noted. "We know GDP growth does not improve the basics. It certainly does not build national character."

"Organising the Games needed political will, integrity and a degree of commitment by all concerned, traits that have depleted at about the same rate as GDP has grown," pointed out Tiwari.