Mani Shankar Aiyar stirred up the pot last week when he told reporters, “Personally, I will be unhappy if the Commonwealth Games are successful.” Suresh Kalmadi, the head of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee promptly labeled Aiyar “anti-national.”
Usually, people use labels like “anit-national” in order to discredit and dehumanize their opponents. Labels like this are also commonly used to distract people from real and pressing problems on the ground; that’s why, during times of rapid change or uncertainty, ultra-nationalist and communal forces often do their worst work.
If one has been following Kalmadi over the past few months, as I have, one might assume he was just trying to divert attention from some of the many silly pronouncements he’s regularly taken to making. Like how the Games village is “going to be the best in the world,” in spite of the fact that it is so far behind that the government has had to displace 3,000 Delhi University students in order to accommodate athletes and officials who would not otherwise have housing during the Games… or how just a few months back he was still promising “The Games won’t cost the country a penny.”
As it turns out, Kalmadi was almost certainly (and rather desperately) trying to distract us from two much bigger stories. First, preparations for the Games are much further behind schedule than we’ve been led to believe. Second, it appears that corruption–not the monsoon rains—is largely responsible for the sorry state of affairs we all find ourselves in.
A recent cover story in India Today suggests that in spite of all the brave talk we are hearing from officials, failure of the Games in obvious and embarrassing variety is indeed an option: major sports venues are incomplete, and some of the venues that have been completed are falling apart before they have even been used. Housing and food arrangements for delegates and athletes are still up in the air. As disturbing as they are, plans to banish 75,000 beggars from Delhi’s streets are totally compatible with the ideology behind the drive to make Delhi a “World Class City.” But evicting thousands of students in order to find housing for athletes? That smells of desperation. We probably have no idea how bad things really are, because Chief Minister Dikshit recently ordered her ministers to keep their mouths shut as they go on inspections of Games facilities. But it seems obvious that the overall situation is very bad indeed.
Of course if you think about it, this should come as no surprise. Delhi is one big construction zone, and most of what we are seeing on major roads and markets is a far cry from “finishing work.” Connaught Place is still a mess. Officials conceded on Friday that much important work there, including the subways, will not be finished in time for the Games. Crossing the outer circle will apparently continue to be a real adventure for months to come.
The failure at CP is particularly worrisome, because we can only assume that if the city cannot finish renovating this flagship market in time for the Games, it will fail elsewhere as well. My advice: officials should invest in rolls of bright blue plastic tarp right now; if all else fails, they can use that to cover last minute leaks in markets and Games facilities.
Now that failure seems a real possibility, much of middle and upper class Delhi seems almost titillated by the story. You hear this all over: “Oh, dear, how embarrassing it will be…nothing ever gets done right around here…such a mess…”
The problem, unfortunately, is that there is something much more serious going on than embarrassing incompetence—it’s called corruption—and it’s not just embarrassing, it’s criminal, it’s unsafe, and it strikes at the heart of this country’s democratic institutions.
In different ways, I’ve long argued that the Games are flawed because they have provided an excuse to divert money from things that all people need– like housing and clean water—to unsustainable things that benefit only a few, like infrastructure for cars and airplanes.
In fact, the government has known for a long time that its contractors have been violating wage, safety and labour standards, and what has it done? Children of Games workers, when they haven’t been working, have been denied their rights as well–you don’t need a hyper link for this if you live in Delhi, it’s out in the open. But here’s one anyway. With all that money, why couldn’t the Government insist that contractors put up some mobile creche facilities for these kids?
It wasn’t just a reckless driver who was responsible for the death of a fourteen year old and three of his co-workers last week; it was also the contractors who hired him to work illegally in unsafe conditions– and the government which failed to seriously enforce their own labour standards. And these workers are not alone; so far, dozens have died in Games-related projects. Violating labour laws is a way for contractors save money; it is a kind of corruption, a kind of theft. And far too often, it has deadly consequences, which makes it a kind of homicide, if you think about it.
There’s a lot to be done, even for those of us who aren’t reporters, officials or lawyers. Why not write a letter to the editor of your newspaper or local government official; let them feel the heat. If you are a student, why not work to fight the evictions at Delhi University? :
Also, go check out out ACORN International’s Commonwealth Games Campaign. I’ve heard good things about this campaign. This site tells you how to sign a petition and get involved.