The new Narendra Modi government is talking about bringing the 2019 Asian Games to the national capital, probably in the hope of exorcising the ghost of the 2010 Commonwealth Games that brought more infamy than glory to Delhi.
The Indian Olympic Association is expected to take a view on the proposal soon as there is little time left for the submission of bids after Hanoi, the original host city, pulled out citing lack of preparation and financial issues.
What works in Delhi’s favour is that it hosted the Asian Games in 1951 and 1982. It also has the sporting infrastructure available from the 2010 CWG, although experts say the number of sports in Asian Games is more than double the CWG events and may require more stadiums.
But if it does go ahead and bid, the Modi government will attempt to not only redeem India’s image - which took a beating with cost overruns, mismanagement and corruption scandals that the CWG brought along - but also to demonstrate the new government’s organising capabilities. Much like China that chose Beijing Olympics to announce itself on the world stage, it could be India’s way of positioning itself as an Asian giant.
But big games are not merely about making geopolitical statements. It is also an opportunity for developing infrastructure at home. There are enough examples since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when the Spanish started a new, post-Cold War phase and cities began to utilise the Games as a vehicle for urban regeneration and renewal.
The Olympics in London in 2012 were a catalyst for regeneration of the five most disadvantaged boroughs of the UK. Similarly, the 2002 CWG in Manchester were aimed to revive the east end, which had witnessed a slump due to the relocation of heavy industries, the mainstay of the local economy.
Back home, Delhi too had pledged to use the CWG to transform itself into a ‘world-class’ city and put `20,000 crore of taxpayers’ money into it. The CWG did spruce up some parts of east Delhi, improving connectivity through Metro and road links. But large portions of northeast and Walled Delhi, the most deprived areas in the Capital, remained untouched by the CWG glitz.
Many cities have used Games to achieve environmental breakthroughs. For the 2006 Melbourne CWG, the Australians revived areas along Yarra, a polluted river flowing through the city. Authorities in London cleaned up the waterways in and around the Olympic Park in the Lower Lea Valley for the big games. But among the dubious legacies of the 2010 CWG are the Games Village and Millennium bus depot constructed on the Yamuna floodplain.
If the government is serious about exorcising the ghost of CWG, it should include some landmark urban renewal projects in its bid for the Asian Games. It could be a push for cleaning the Yamuna in a rapid timeframe to restore a natural riverfront with all its biodiversity and enhance the city’s water security.
The 2019 Asiad could also be an opportunity to put some neglected stretches of Delhi back on the civic map. The development of south Delhi got a big boost with three new flyovers and widening of Ring Road for Asiad ‘82. This time, the government could look at the disadvantaged pockets of northeast Delhi, Narela, Bawana and Shahjahanabad, one of India’s oldest living cities now falling apart due to administrative apathy.
Such revival plans will cost us money and will be a test of the new government’s administrative skills, integrity and political will. Unless the Modi government is confident of pulling it off, it better not burn its fingers. The CWG fiasco cost the Congress last elections. And the next general elections will coincide with the Asian Games if we get to host it.