August 16, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

The Cassandras have proved right. The Commonwealth Games have turned into a gigantic multi-billion rupee racket, under which Delhi’s landscape is recklessly ripped up, inappropriate and wasteful projects are shamelessly promoted, public funds massively looted, workers sadistically brutalised, the poor summarily evicted, and human rights egregiously violated—supposedly to enhance India’s global image in pursuit of hollow notions of prestige. The CWG, far grander than the Asian Games of 1982, will be monumentally irrelevant to the future of sports. But they will leave a toxic legacy of empty public coffers, disused stadia, and a battered mass of underprivileged people.

Public attention has focussed on corruption in every contract in this bonanza for builders, contractors, bureaucrats, and the sleazy politicians who run the Games Organising Committee. The booty is estimated to exceed a colossal Rs 30,000 crores, a sum of the same order as the budget of the flagship social programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Urban Development Minister S Jaipal Reddy has admitted to an expenditure of Rs 28,054 crores.

There’s hardly a Games project which passes the test of transparency, accountability and fairness, and which isn’t rife with bribery and kickbacks, or deception, lies and forgery. The Queen’s Baton Relay inaugural, on which an unbelievable Rs 32 crores was spent, is only one instance. Every brick and bag of cement used in the Games-driven construction boom, every fixture installed in the Games Village (including liquid-soap dispensers costing Rs 9,379), and every contract for transportation, comes dripping in sleaze.

Corruption is shielded through a Doctrine of Necessity: whatever is necessary for the Games is worthy in itself. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit has branded the Games’ critics “anti-national”.

However, it would be wrong to focus primarily on corruption. The Games’ pathology runs much deeper. The Games make no rational sense. Hosting them at enormous expense is morally perverse for a country with mass poverty and destitution and huge unaddressed social agendas.

However, the Games are unhealthy for other reasons too, including urban maldevelopment, inappropriate infrastructure, disruption of city life and the “invisibilisation” through expulsion of 40,000 rickshaw-pullers and thousands of food-stall hawkers, vegetable and paan vendors, homeless citizens and beggars. All this is being done to pamper the elite’s hubris and craving for self-aggrandisement and line the pockets of the builder-contractor mafia.

The public exchequer has been bled to finance the Games. Their Union budget allocation has spurted by 6,235 percent since 2005-06. In addition, the Centre has loaned Rs 2,394 crores to the Games Organising Committee. And the Delhi government has spent Rs 15,000 crores on the Games infrastructure.

An excellent report by the Housing and Land Rights Network—South Asia Regional Programme (HLRN) ( shows Games spending spiralling out of control. For instance, the entire sports infrastructure expenditure in India’s Bid Document (2003) was Rs 150 crores. But already, an expenditure of “at least Rs 3,390 crores has been incurred on stadia” alone—an increase of 2,160 percent. The total expenditure on infrastructure is still unknown. But Mr Reddy’s number probably greatly understates it.

A particularly obnoxious feature of the Games’ financing is the diversion of Rs 744 crores from Delhi’s Scheduled Caste Sub-Plan. This is illegitimate and violates the National Development Council’s directive that such allocations be made “non-diversible and non-lapsable”.

The idea that sports mega-events like the Olympics and football World Cup produce big returns is mistaken. All such events have lost billions. Public-domain data shows that except for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, no sports mega-event has made a profit in the past 40 years. In fact, the host countries incur heavy debt which they repay for years; the massive sports venues become a long-term drain on the economy. This is true of the Olympics in Montreal, Barcelona, Atlanta, Seoul, Sydney and Athens, and the recent CWGs in Manchester and Melbourne. India’s own Asian Games experience confirms this.

Besides image-building, the Games have been rationalised on three grounds: they will improve Delhi’s infrastructure, promote tourism, and create a better sports culture in India. These same arguments were advanced for the Asiad too. They are just as specious today. The 1982 Games gave an unhealthy but irreversible direction to urban development through flyovers and other expensive projects geared to private transport. The CWG will intensify the maldevelopment.

The government has permitted blatant violations of the Delhi Master Plan, building regulations and recommendations of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC) and the Archaeological Survey in the name of ensuring the Games’ success. This has meant bypassing clearances while promoting environmentally unsound projects. In 2008, the entire DUAC, headed by eminent architect Charles Correa, resigned in protest against the government’s pressure to clear Games-related projects without enough scrutiny.

Thus, the Yamuna’s Flood Plain, which is essential for the river’s survival, and must be treated as a no-go area, has been colonised. Valuable monuments like Humayun’s Tomb have been endangered by the misconceived Barapullia elevated road—all to cut transit time for athletes by 15 minutes. Roads and pavements all over Delhi, and parts of Delhi and New Delhi railway stations, have been ripped up, aggravating nightmarish traffic problems and inconveniencing millions. The designs of the new buildings are second- or third-rate and incongruous with their surroundings.

The tourism promotion claim is wildly mistaken. The Asian Games only drew 200 foreign tourists. But the CWG is premised on 100,000 tourist arrivals, for whom 40,000 hotel rooms have been licensed through the auctions of 39 prime properties and tax-waivers. But only four hotels have come up. As the tourism watchdog group Equations says: “People who come for regular tourism are not interested in the Games and vice versa. …”

“Mega-events” adds Equations, “have little to do with bolstering tourism, as during such periods negative factors such as Olympics blight—a phenomena when a large number of people avoid coming to the city hosting the Games—play a key role ….”. India’s 2003 Bid Document estimated 30,000 spectators, but the tourism Ministry in 2009 revised the number to 1 lakh—which translates into 40,000 rooms. This is much, much higher than the 5,000 additional rooms built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 3,000 rooms constructed for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

Take the sports promotion claim. The Games stadia are unlikely to be used. This was the experience with Asiad. The Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium was mothballed for 20 years. And the handball and archery venues were demolished altogether. In Sydney and Beijing too, stadia have remained unused. In Athens, the 2004 Olympics stadia have become a liability and cost $70 million in annual maintenance although they are disused. The objective of sports promotion would be infinitely better served in India if half the country’s primary schools, which have no playgrounds, are equipped with these, and sports training is organised at district and regional levels.

Now consider the Games’ human and social costs. More than one lakh poor families have been evicted in Delhi to make room for huge infrastructure projects. About 20,000 roadside eateries (dhabas) will be shut down; and thousands of small shopkeepers, vendors and informal-sector workers will lose their livelihoods. Homeless people and beggars are being summarily uprooted and gaoled by mobile beggars’ courts whose number has been tripled. Why, even night shelters for poor people have been demolished to build parking lots.

The conditions of workers employed in the Games projects are appalling. Surveys have documented the prevalence of unregistered employment, sub-minimum wages, delayed payment, use of child labour, coercive practices, unhygienic living conditions, and lack of safety equipment. A Delhi High Court-appointed team found that a majority of residence sites lack adequate toilet facilities. More than 100 workers have died in the Games preparations.

It’s on the backs of these poor, illiterate, often homeless, workers that the Games are taking place—essentially to massage the ego of an insecure, uncaring and misanthropic elite in search of a shortcut to global glory. The most damaging component of the Games’ social cost is that they will generate an orgy of self-congratulation for the privileged and be used to legitimise deep social rifts, intrusive surveillance and exclusion on “security” grounds. The Games are a sordid lose-lose proposition for society and the quality of urban life.

Delhi, like most Indian cities, has a poor civic culture, with little sense of community, humanity, collective destiny, and shared citizenship. The Games will create a more segregated, inequitable and inaccessible Delhi. With the Games, the Delhi government’s fiscal deficit has spurted from Rs 2,824 crores in 2008-09 to Rs 3,561 crores in 2009-10. This has prompted it to cancel all new health projects this year and to raise taxes on city residents, especially poor and lower middle-class people. Delhi’s social sector expenditure will fall further even as the city becomes more skewed.

This is the opposite of social progress or evolution towards a humane, secure and dignified future. Such regression speaks of a terrible sickness in society and politics. The Games will aggravate the sickness and impose yet more afflictions on India’s body politic.