Financial Chronicle, August 10, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

A rash of scandals has broken out over contracts for the construction of infrastructure and sports facilities for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. There seems to be much more substance than is usually the case in the allegations that hundreds of crores have been siphoned off in padded-up costs, bribes and kickbacks from the Games budget. The Queen’s Baton Relay inaugural scam and evidence of fake emails, as well as the opaque process through which the contracts were awarded, including some to shady companies, suggest large-scale corruption. Even Urban Development Minister Jaipal Reddy didn’t deny “irregularities” in the Parliament debate on Monday.

This calls for thorough and credible inquiries by the Central Vigilance Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General, Parliamentary committees and other agencies into controversial contracts, and an audit of the Games’ social, environmental, and urban development impact. We have never before witnessed such a huge multi-billion rupee racket where every brick and steel bar that goes into stadia, housing for Games athletes, roads, bridges and street beautification is lubricated with bribes.

This raises disturbing questions about transparency, accountability and governance failure and the existence of an Indian kleptocracy which sets no limits to how low it will stoop in looting the exchequer. Nothing—commercial contracts, humanitarian programmes, emergency relief work, even compensation for Bhopal—is immune from its depredations. This speaks of the ruling elite’s horrifying pathology.

But the Games must also be criticised on grounds other than corruption. They will be a hollow, tawdry 12-day spectacle, which does nothing to promote sports, or to earn India any goodwill or prestige, which the elite craves. This inevitably raises a moral issue: should a country with a Human Development Index rank of 134 (among 182 countries), a majority of whose people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, blow up Rs 30,000-40,000 crores on the Games?

This sum is not fantastic. Even Reddy conceded that the Games expenditure is Rs 28,054 crores. We are looking at a figure of the same order as the budget of the government’s flagship social programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. True, only part of this is direct expenditure on construction of the Games’ venues and event organisation. Perhaps two-thirds is capital spending sunk into expansion of Metro lines, new flyovers, roads, etc. But precisely because this has an ad hoc and arbitrary character, we don’t know how much of it is socially useful.

What we do know, however, is that no sports mega-event has made a profit in the past 40 years when all the costs are factored in—except for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In fact, the host countries incur heavy debt which they repay for years, and massive sports venues become a long-term drain on resources. This is true of past Olympics at Montreal, Barcelona, Atlanta, Seoul, Sydney and Athens, as well as the CWGs at Manchester and Melbourne. Revenues from mega-events are usually negligible in relation to the costs. And other spin-off effects too are limited.

Take tourism, promoting which has long been a tireless enterprise in India, with poor returns. Rosy projections were made about large inflows of foreign tourists for the 1982 Asian Games. The Games only attracted 200 foreign tourists. The tourism watchdog group Equations says: “People who come for regular tourism are not interested in the Games, and vice versa. … Mega-events have little to do with bolstering tourism.” But our tourism bureaucracy has learnt nothing: it revised its 2003 estimates of 30,000 tourist arrivals for the Games to 100,000. To accommodate them, it had 39 prime properties auctioned for new hotels. But only four hotels are ready.

Nor will the Games seriously promote sports. The Games stadia are unlikely to be used any better than after Asiad. Then, the Indira Gandhi stadium was mothballed for 20 years. And the handball and archery venues were demolished. In Sydney, Beijing and Athens too, stadia have lain disused.

So, the Games’ benefits are paltry. Now consider their human and social costs, including urban maldevelopment, inept infrastructure planning, disruption of city life, gross exploitation of workers and expulsion of 40,000 rickshaw-pullers and thousands of food-stall hawkers, vegetable vendors, homeless citizens and beggars. One lakh poor families have already been evicted to make room for huge projects. About 20,000 roadside eateries will be shut down; and thousands of informal-sector workers will lose their livelihoods. Why, even night shelters for the poor have been demolished to build parking lots.

Working conditions in the Games projects are appalling and marked by unregistered employment, sub-minimum wages, delayed payment, child labour, unhygienic living conditions, and lack of safety equipment and adequate toilet facilities. More than 100 workers have died in the Games preparations.

The Games will provoke a great deal of self-congratulation among the elite and will be used to legitimise social divides, anti-poor discrimination, and further cuts in social spending by the Delhi government which has been bled by the Games. Eventually, society will bear the real costs of the elite’s self-delusion. The overall outcome couldn’t have been more retrograde.