What do the spin-doctors mean when they tout the Commonwealth Games (CWG) as a chance for Delhi “to exhibit a new image for itself — that of a world class city with international standards”? As answer, the CWG-2010 website flaunts the new stadiums, the new expressways and elevated roads, the new Metro lines and new airport, the new parking lots, hospitals and hotels, and the new monuments. Indeed, come October, the city will have world class sports facilities; but the citizens will not know where these facilities are located and how to gain admission. A staggering number of our world class citizens will not be able to read the map and reach the venue in time. And many talented sportspersons, belonging to the underprivileged sections, will hesitate to even approach the facilities, let alone practice there.
On the one hand we have public ignorance and apathy, engendered by years of disinterest and alienation from all that is ‘common’ wealth; and on the other we have organisers who have no legacy plan, no idea of how these facilities, costing millions of rupees, will be used after the Games. They have advertised for private parties to manage the facilities, but how will they push a mutually beneficial public-private partnership when the private party will have serious doubts about the quality and performance of the facilities? As usual, because the actual value of the asset is notional — they will not factor in the opportunity costs of creating the infrastructure, the hidden cost of, say, the several years of traffic jams caused by Games-related activity — and because the asset will depreciate from the moment the closing ceremony ends, these custodians of common wealth will have to bend over backwards to palm off public property cheaply.
If you think that the alleged payoffs and siphoning of funds is our worst nightmare, and our self-righteous middle-class morals are violated by the injustice of it all, then take a look around at contemporary India. Feast your eyes on the billions lost every year during floods and epidemics, riots and strikes; look at the billions we spend on the security agencies that maintain our fragile peace; watch the multi-million dollar jet fighters crashing to the ground and the runaway trains attempting violent copulation. Watch the tonnes of foodgrains rotting in the state-run silos — not distributed to the hungry because it would destabilise the prices (a macabre economic joke).
Compared to all that wasted public money, you might see the cost of overpriced taxis and toilet paper as a minor trespass. The chicanery of vile fellows is not new to the world — Indian and world history is a litany of betrayal, robbery and corruption. Our feigned indignation needs to be followed with measures to avoid the same indignities being repeated. The Father of the Nation taught us that the real crime is to suffer injustice, but do we have the requisite moral fibre to bring about change?
We are unlikely to find a solution for the moral decrepitude that allows Indians to be corrupt with impunity, but let us note that other fundamental issues are getting obscured by the sordid air surrounding the Games.
First, by wasting inordinate amounts of public funds on such an event, we are deepening the rich-poor divide that lies at the heart of the violent uprising that is threatening to destroy us. The organisers did not even hesitate to divert funds from social welfare schemes that are already under-funded. In a city were class-based crimes are on a rapid increase — where the have-nots are violently expressing their resentment against the haves — we could have been more judicious in our ways. Because of the excesses committed by my class of Indians, my family’s lives are at risk; regardless of the fact that we lead an honest life and teach our children to do the same.
Second, by failing to contribute a sobering voice to the radical transformations being made to the city, we are willfully neglecting our own urban future. Projects like the Games Village on the Yamuna bank, the Ring Road bypass along the Yamuna riverfront, and the road over the Barapulla nallah are less about the Games and more about channelising the river for future urban development. The occupation of the riverfront is now rendered inevitable, because no government will jeopardise the assets created, albeit in a hazardous zone.
We are witnessing the beginning of a new New Delhi, which will have radically altered movement and settlement patterns. The imagination of the city will also change, with the hitherto neglected and unseemly ‘back-side’ of the city becoming a new face. But the change is precarious and its technical feasibility is questionable.
Delhi’s citizens are well aware of our inept jal management, but the following image surreally captures our sorry condition: A bridge over the Najafgarh nallah, outside Indralok Metro Station, gets waterlogged every monsoon. The nallah passes right below the bridge, but the water can’t find its way down there!
Third, we are willing to let delusional slogans of world superiority and national pride distract us from the huge opportunity costs that are built into such a project. Rather than the Western countries we worship, we are more akin to Nigeria, which recently spent $330 million, more than its annual spend on health and education, on a national soccer stadium. While we have been nursing the Games, our plans and budgets for eradicating poverty, for enhancing educational opportunities and providing shelter for all have been setback by years. If we go by the Master Plan for Delhi, notified in 2007, then we have already piled up a backlog of housing shortage going into hundreds of thousands of units.
In the name of the Games, we have spent more billions on a Metro system that is already overcrowded and regularly afflicted by technical and operational snags, while the alternative modes of public transport envisaged by the National Urban Transport Policy, which might actually alleviate us from logjam, are being deferred. Most roads still do not have safe pavements to walk on. Many of our government schools don’t have adequate space and safe buildings, yet we will have world class sports facilities. And all this, after we have dedicated funds that are equal to a quarter of our National Urban Renewal Mission, on hosting a colonial fetish.
Qua event, CWG 2010 is like your usual showbiz extravaganza — fleeting, marketed through a franchise, insanely profitable for advertisers, and tuned to glamour and glitz — but the costs are much higher, and can only be borne by city governments. It is not a coincidence that the Games are held in cities rather than the front yard of Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha! International sporting events, be they in Cambodia or in Vancouver, Rio or Barbados, have a simple logic: To leverage a single event to fund rapid urban development, under the benign agenda of showcasing national talent. Given that our confidence in the latter is somewhat low, we naturally concentrate on the former.
It is claimed that the CWG will generate 2.47 million jobs in a four-year span from 2008-12, but we will never know whether these livelihoods are what the city needs and if they are sustainable. Like a civilised democracy, we could have had a public disclosure of the social and economic impact assessment well before the Games. When the government routinely demands such studies for all infrastructure projects, why did the rule not apply to these Games? Why is the public the victim of the oldest trick in the moneymaking game, which renders the final expenditure 14-times the original budget? The avaricious can easily see that once the Government is committed to such a ‘prestigious’ event, it is almost impossible to pull out without serious collateral damage, even if it entails inordinate overspending.
The fourth issue is the promise of increased investment in the city after the Games. The fact is that private investors are wandering around the country looking for bankable projects, which have sound technical and financial underpinnings. And they can’t find any, which probably explains the absence of private investment in the building of the Games infrastructure. Given the economic changes in the country in the last 28 years, we could at least have done better than 1982, when we staged the Asian Games with state funding, inaugurated colour television, and built stadiums designed by our own architects and engineers — not just GATT-enabled imports — thereby creating capacity in our own professionals (which has now been wasted). The Organising Committee promises “the social, economic and physical regeneration of Delhi” as if it is child’s play: Oh, see! See those prosperous Dilli-wallahs playing peaceful games in their beautiful stadiums!
The most outrageous suggestion doing the rounds of public discourse is that we have these regular messes because our planning is faulty. Consider the obverse: That we have become masters of deliberate mis-planning. Indians are masters at planning and anticipating problems. Ask the banking and insurance industry. They budget their daily expenses and plan their lives to a great amount of detail, starting with the thrift that helps them accumulate some wealth, followed by the careful investments that help them multiply their money, and then the legacies they leave to their children, keeping enough for their retired and old-age existence. It is only when it comes to public funds that we are irresponsible.
The Master Plan for Delhi, completed in 2006, had anticipated the need for a “suitable area of about 200 hectares (which) shall be reserved for international sports events.” But this proposal, like much else in the weekly amended ‘Master’ Plan, has been rendered meaningless. Considering that hosting the games in Delhi entails the shutting down of daily life in the city, an alternative location for sports infrastructure could have received serious attention. There is sufficient space for a world-class sports city, both within Delhi’s borders and in the NCR. This could have been a rare display of world-class planning. Instead, we will have stadiums where each event will unleash chaos on the roads and inconvenience for the citizens.
Being ‘world class’ is not a recognisable physical condition or a popular mirage; rather, it reflects the ethos and dignity of common wealth. Such events are rare opportunities to demonstrate what it means to live and work with dignity. The merchandisers for the Games might sell us ‘I love Delhi’ flags this October, but we will wave them with zero conviction, like the audience of a ‘reality’ show, prompted to clap and prompted to laugh. We will celebrate the ersatz dreams of a wayward society, neither world class nor proudly Indian.
– The writer is an architect and historian based in Delhi