Despite the collapsing pedestrian bridge, the flooded Games village and the bad international press, Delhi managed to pull off a decent Commonwealth Games show in those 12 days in October 2010. The Capital looked quite a different city in parts. The makeover made even cynics like us, who took up acres of newsprint writing about how Games was a bad idea, rethink.
Wide, clean and landscaped sidewalks, roads without potholes, new flyovers, shiny new lamp posts, immaculately pruned shrubs on central verges, low-floor buses, sleek steel bus stops, a dash of futuristic public art and street furniture, modern public toilets — it appeared that bits of the city’s civic infrastructure, at least in certain pockets, had made a generational leap.
Like any other city bidding to host big Games, Delhi too pledged to use the opportunity to transform a semi-urban sprawl into a “world class” megacity. It put R16,500 crore of taxpayers’ money into the makeover project. But the “world class” sheen started waning almost as soon as the party was over.
Drive around east and central Delhi, the so-called Games circuit, and you will see how the patchwork has come apart and the good work orphaned.
Roads are bumpy again. The hurriedly-laid pavements have crumbled. Street furniture and fancy lamp posts are missing — presumably stolen. As many as 500 bus stops are without any maintenance agency.
The waterless toilets have been shut down and people are back to urinating on walls. Information kiosks have been dismantled. The dead shrubs and uprooted plants on the central verge do not seem to be on any civic agency’s radar.
The fleets of swanky green low-floor and red air-conditioned buses do not look very different anymore from the rickety Bluelines they replaced.
Despite the government paying huge maintenance fees to manufacturers, commuters complain of broken interiors and faulty air-conditioning.
The government did give a “wake-up call” to its agencies after newspapers started splashing photos of broken Games infrastructure. A committee of high-ranking officials was formed to monitor maintenance work, but it has not been able to arrest the slide.
Creating, and then protecting, transformative legacy is a challenge for any city that hosts big Games. But building legacy, the most important inheritance from Games, requires robust planning. Our organisers descended into such a chaos that somehow meeting the deadline became the only priority.
Even today, grappling with basics such as fixing a broken pavement or a cratered road, Delhi has no time to think of a long-term legacy framework. No questions have been asked about the civic, social or economic benefits the Games yielded; no stocktaking has taken place yet.
In the run-up to the Games, Delhi’s biggest mistake was not setting up a Games task force, a central authority — like the one headed by Rajiv Gandhi before the 1982 Asian Games — that would be in charge of all Games-related projects. Post-Games, the government is repeating the same mistake by not putting a single authority in charge of maintenance and legacy. We could have learnt from London that will be hosting the Olympics in June this year. London set up the Olympic Park Legacy Company three years before the Games — with the mayor in charge of day-to-day monitoring — to ensure that the huge investment going into building infrastructure does not fall into a mess and, in the long-term, translates into the soft legacy of more jobs, improved skills, increased physical activity.
Poor planning cost Delhi a great opportunity of transforming itself into a world-class city. Good planning can still save whatever little the Games left behind.