Financial Chronicle, October 19, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

The Commonwealth Games have proved the Cassandras right. Every single dire forecast and dismal prediction has turned out to be correct and every dark fear has come true. The mis-planning and mismanagement of the event was gross, the scale of corruption staggering, the profligate spending on the international sports bureaucracy unparalleled, and the brutalisation of Delhi and its suburbs complete.

Even for the Games’ organisers and supporters, the overall balance-sheet is at best blotted and ambivalent—witness the mutual recrimination. The balance-sheet is abysmally negative for the Games’ many direct victims—including the workers who toiled at near-starvation wages to complete the stadia, the one lakh families that were summarily evicted, and the beggars who were illegally incarcerated—, and the indirect victims, comprising the entire population of the Capital, which suffered acute civic distress, traffic disruption and an overbearing display of hubris and police power.

India set out to impress the world as a rival to China in hosting a sports mega-spectacle. It ended up firmly etching the images of a collapsed bridge near the Nehru stadium and filthy toilet bowls and soiled bedsheets in the Games village on the minds of the international audience. These were barely relieved by the relatively smooth conduct of the Games under unprecedented surveillance.

Sections of the media have tried to put a gloss on the Games’ colossal failures by terming the opening ceremony a grand success and by pleading that despite numerous hitches, everything ultimately went off OK thanks to the Indian art of jugaad, for which the world grudgingly admires India. And didn’t India come out Number Two in the medals ranking?!

But everything didn’t go off OK. Many athletes dropped out for a variety of reasons including security fears. The Games failed in their stated objective of promoting tourism and showcasing India’s culture. Winning medals wasn’t a goal.

It was not OK to splurge the equivalent of the entire annual budget of the government’s largest social programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. It was not OK to further distort urban development by promoting elitist transportation and pricey housing along Delhi’s radial corridors. It was certainly not OK to threaten the survival of the Yamuna by building right in its flood-plains. Any menace to the river will imperil Delhi and scores of other cities, producing disasters that could make the 2005 Mumbai floods look like a picnic.

Some people set much store by the inquiry ordered under former Comptroller and Auditor General VK Shunglu. Many hope that Games Organising Committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi, characterised as the villain of the piece, will be fixed. They feel encouraged at the discovery of evidence that a construction company was paid twice over for the same work. Contractors have been told not to dismantle assemblies/buildings and thus destroy evidence. So the government seemingly means business.

Let’s put this in perspective. The Games were approved in 2003. But nothing was done for years to lay the ground or begin construction of different facilities. This is a favourite tactic of corrupt contractors and babus: delay things till there’s panic and then you can push anything through in the name of fire-fighting, somehow “getting things done”—regardless of the cost. Involved here was not just the OC, but many layers of Central and Delhi bureaucrats and municipal and other authorities. The causes and consequences of these “mother” delays and cost overruns won’t be investigated.

As for corruption in procurement of material, from ashtrays to earth-movers, Shunglu can at best demand to know if there was competitive bidding. He won’t find it easy to refute the pre-planned answer that the time available was too short, or a particular product of quality is only made by one manufacturer. What certainly won’t come to light is “hidden contracts” or “private treaty” arrangements: quiet transfers of huge sums to media houses and programming companies for publicity, with the records showing straightforward commercial deals.

As for Kalmadi, he won’t be easily fazed by the inquiry. He is a seasoned collector of funds for political parties and knows that the Congress would expect him to contribute to its electoral kitty soon. So we are unlikely to see many heads roll.

Meanwhile, the Western (especially Anglo-Saxon) world’s leadership will have lowered India’s ranking by a notch or two. Not many notches, because unlike our elite, it was never going to judge India by the Games. It had low expectations of them in the first place. This corresponds to its general perception of India’s dualist complex of poverty and wealth with corruption, and its experience with aggressive Indian businessmen (who too practise jugaad). The only new factor was the open plunder of money belonging to India’s poor public by a rapacious contractor-bureaucrat-sports-czar mafia. With its pillage of India, the elite has inflicted further damage upon itself.