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Playing spoilsport

The Commonwealth Games is becoming a nightmare for Delhi. It is an albatross around the city’s neck, says Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Sep 14, 2009 21:00 IST
Ashok Malik

Just over a year from now, Delhi will host the Commonwealth Games. In 2003, at a meeting of the Commonwealth Games Federation in Jamaica, India won the rights to the 2010 Games with a heavy-duty campaign. In a close race with the Canadian city of Hamilton, India eventually moved ahead by promising each participating country — including such economies as Australia and Singapore — $100,000 in preparation fees.

Some saw it as a bribe but the Indians felt differently. Rising powers often use symbols to illustrate their arrival on the world stage or perhaps even their aspirations.

It is debatable whether such trifles actually mean anything in the larger reckoning. Yet, India is not alone. Japan used the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 to showcase its post-war economic miracle. South Korea did likewise in 1988. Beijing’s Games in 2008 were described, prematurely as it turned out, as China’s “coming out party”.

Not every such gamble works. The 1976 Montreal Olympics was such a financial disaster that the flagship stadium and the Games themselves are still remembered as the “Big Owe”. The stadium was incomplete when the Games began. Cost overruns and a tax imposed to pay for the construction had already made it unpopular. The retractable roof was not ready till 1987. The public exchequer finished paying for the stadium as late as 2006.

A similar, white elephant syndrome defined the aftermath of the Athens Olympics. Far from the cradle of Western civilisation, Greece was a sort of Sick Man of the European Union by 2004. Fellow Europeans — particularly the often cruel British press — mocked its abilities and said the Games were destined for failure.

To be fair, the Greeks worked hard to put up a grand show, but their exertions tested budgets and deadlines. The original outlay of $6 billion rose to $15 billion, part of the increase being explained by enhanced security provisions following 9/11.

At the opening ceremony, two Greek performers made evident their country’s ability to laugh at itself. They hammered in a nail and exclaimed: “There, the last nail is in place. The Olympic stadium is finally ready!”

Athens is a much smaller city than Delhi but offers useful precedents. Lacking an intra-city train network, it used the Olympics to give itself its long overdue Metro. The city’s traffic was and remains horrific. The International Olympic Committee secured the promise of an ‘Olympic Lane’. For the duration of the Games, one lane of Athens’ three-lane avenues was dedicated for use by vehicles of the ‘Olympic Family’: athletes, officials, journalists and so on. At peak hours, the average Athenian commuter was not happy to have his driving space constricted.

How will Delhi drivers respond in October 2010? Indeed, why is this background relevant at all? Actually, these contexts offer four messages for the Indian capital.

First, unlike Japan in 1964 or South Korea in 1988, India is hosting the Games early in its economic growth story. This has meant its cities lack the resources and crucial infrastructure that should have anyway been in place before the incremental construction for the Games.

Second, if Delhi resembles a massive and ugly construction zone today, it is because the city authorities have confused a much-needed urban upgrade — which should have happened irrespective of the Commonwealth Games — with event-specific measures. It can be argued that Athens did this too, but it has a little over three million people, a quarter of Delhi's population.

Third, it may not always be noticeable in all the frenzy, but there is life after the Commonwealth Games. Yet, the long-term costs Delhi and its civic ethos are being asked to pay are in some ways far higher than the “Big Owe” bills Montreal ran up.

Till even 2003-04, tourism planners spoke of Commonwealth visitors walking down a riverside promenade built by a salvaged Yamuna. Today, the river is a glorified sewer. The riverbed, crucial to receiving floodwaters and to groundwater recharge, is the site of the Games Village. This is an environmentally questionable move that is bound to bring India bad press. It was permitted after the government told the Supreme Court there was no time for alternatives and the ravaging of the Yamuna riverbed was necessary for ‘national prestige’.

When Delhiites envisioned a Metro, they thought of a network of underground trains. Today, they have ungainly lines running past their balconies. This too was justified as cheaper and quicker and needed to meet Commonwealth Games deadlines. The examples can go on.

Fourth, Delhi’s civic sinews are grossly overstretched. A Commonwealth Games mini-city — village, stadiums, everything — could have been built on a virgin location close by (say Sonepat or Greater Noida). This is the model Beijing and, to a degree, Athens followed. However, to foist Games facilities upon the busiest stretches and most densely-populated neighbourhoods of a living city, to play havoc with ecology and urban design, is the equivalent of murder.

Aside from those in the real estate business and the fixers who double as Indian Olympic Association (IOA) officials, the Commonwealth Games is becoming a nightmare for Delhi. Far from a matter of pride and popular participation, it is an albatross around the city’s neck. The IOA now talks of bringing the 2018 Asian Games and the 2024 Olympics to Delhi. After the Commonwealth Games experience, spare us.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer