Now that the Commonwealth Games have passed off without any major hitches we can all breathe sighs of relief. Thanks mainly to the public uproar that followed the revelations that preparations were shockingly behind schedule, the organisers (and the entire government of India) got their act together and delivered a Games that went off smoothly.
But the big question remains: was it all worth it? Did the Games justify the heartache, the humiliation, the moments of panic, and the vast expense?
In all fairness, it should be said that even if the Games had been faultlessly executed, even if various fat cats had not skimmed millions off the Games budget, this would have been a valid question to ask.
Take the example of the London Olympics. When the UK decided to bid, there were many important and influential voices within Britain who argued that the Olympics were simply not worth it. They would not deliver a reasonable return on the vast investment that would be required to stage them.
In the case of the Commonwealth Games — which we won in 2003 — we were offered various justifications.
We were told that the Games would not cost that much: Rs. 1,899 crore was the figure then mentioned. In return for under Rs. 2,000 crore, we would get a chance to advertise the new India to the world. The city of Delhi would be transformed. A world-class infrastructure that would survive for years would be put into place. And a new sporting culture would develop among the youth of India.
Though there were doubters even then, these arguments did not seem unreasonable. Major sporting events often serve as advertisements for host countries. In 1964, the Olympics served notice to the world that Japan had recovered from the ravages of World War II and was on the verge of becoming a great nation. More recently, the Beijing Olympics stunned the West with their evocation of Chinese efficiency and grandeur.
Did the Commonwealth Games work to advance India’s image?
First of all, let’s remember that these Games are a minor league sporting event ignored by most of the world and do not have the profile of, say, the Olympics or the soccer World Cup. Even if they had been an unqualified success, the benefits would have been limited by the nature of the Games.
That said, let’s also concede that the Games did very little for India’s image. Rightly or wrongly, much of the world now sees us as a possible rival to China. We are seen as an emerging superpower and as a society full of smart, tech-savvy, young people. For the Games to have matched India’s reputation, they would have had to live up to this image. In other words, they should have been nearly as good as the Beijing Olympics.
Forget for a moment about the screw-ups that preceded the event and focus on the Games in isolation. Did the event match up to the Beijing Olympics? Did it seem like the kind of spectacular show an emerging superpower should stage?
If you answered no, then you have your conclusion. The Games did not serve as an advertisement for the new India.
Once you look at the Games as a whole and include the screw-ups during the preparation phase, then the picture becomes clearer. The run-up to the Games confirmed every cliché about India and lived up to every negative stereotype: India is corrupt; India is dirty; Indian contractors do shoddy work, etc.
The best that can be said about the Games is this: India is one of those countries where even though delivery dates are not kept, money is siphoned off, and facilities are filthy, these Indians can really get their act together at the last moment and put up a good show.
Is this really how we want the world to see us?
Once we accept that the Games failed as a global advertisement for India, we need to look at the domestic gains.
Nobody will deny that the citizens of Delhi and its neighbouring areas have benefitted. Some roads have been repaved, many flyovers built, and the Metro has extended to new areas.
But has the city been transformed? Does it look significantly different from, say, a year ago? Have the lives of most of us who live in the capital been altered in some important way?
The answer has to be no. In 1982, when hundreds of crores were spent on sprucing up Delhi for the Asian Games, the city was transformed. It became a significantly different place to live in. Nothing like that has happened this time.
There are some visible advantages. New stadiums and facilities have been built. The existing sporting infrastructure has been revamped. Sportsmen will certainly benefit from these improvements.
You can also argue that some sporting spirit has been created. When Indians talk about sport, we usually mean cricket. And though there is no doubt that the India-Australia Tests that were played during the Games meant much more to most Indians, it is certainly true that the public took much more notice of track events, boxing and other CWG sports than ever before.
But eventually, you have to ask yourselves whether these returns justified the investment. That original Rs. 2,000 crore budget ballooned many times and it is estimated that the real cost of the Games was Rs. 30,000 crores (the official figure is, of course, lower but nobody disputes that these are the most expensive Commonwealth Games to be staged in any country).
What did we get in return for our money? We got some facilities for the citizens of Delhi that frankly, the city should have got anyway. Moreover, it is hard to justify to people in other cities that desperately need investment (Bombay and Calcutta, for example) why Delhi should corner so much of the money. We got a few stadiums. And a higher-than-usual medal tally excited sports fans and awakened interest in previously marginal sports.
Now, consider the alternatives.
There is a lot we could have done with Rs. 30,000 crore. We could have overhauled healthcare in our cities. We could have built thousands of new schools. We could have overhauled the chaotic traffic system. We could have spent that money on recruiting more policemen and giving them the facilities they need. We could have built hundreds of new courts and recruited more judges to reduce the backlog in our judicial system. (And I am deliberately staying away from anti-poverty programmes because enough has been said about them already.)
Consider also that these Games were staged by spending your and my money — the budget was financed by our taxes. If we had been given a choice between better education, a better judicial system, better healthcare, better policing and a better future for our children, would we have voluntarily refused all of this and asked that our money be diverted to stage the Commonwealth Games instead?
I think you know the answer. And that answer must be the epitaph for the Commonwealth Games.
The views expressed by the author are personal