Delhi 2010: Where did it all go wrong?

With the Commonwealth Games underway, Satbir Singh traces the psychology underpinning India's celebration of and embarrassment at the event.
Satbir Singh
6 October 2010

With athletes and delegates pouring into the capital, the Games Village has been deemed ‘uninhabitable’, an entirely avoidable epidemic of dengue fever has swept over the city, two gunmen have opened fire on a tourist bus and a giant footbridge leading to the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium has collapsed, injuring 28 workers. Nobody, it seems, could have predicted the number of dominoes which would fall these last couple of days.

And yet – none of it feels terribly surprising. For the last six months or so, watching the preparations for the games unfold has felt a bit like watching a train crashing in slow motion. Glaring signs of impending failure are visible it seems to all but the organising committee.

Let me say this first: India should never have bid for the games in the first place. In a country where 44% of children are malnourished, 40% of adults are illiterate and maternal mortality is higher than in East Timor, I can think of better ways to spend our scarce fiscal resources than parading around for a fortnight with the world’s athletes. I am not alone in this opinion – I can’t count the number of journalists and politicians, autowallahs and bricklayers who have told me quite candidly that the whole affair is a bit of a farce.

But where did it all go wrong? There is naturally no single answer. Instead there is a string of failures and maladies which represent far deeper problems, present at the very heart of the Indian psyche.

Ours is the politics of self-esteem. Our day-to-day relations with one another are built on an endless cycle of competition and self-assertion, to be expected in such a stratified, inegalitarian society. When one has been denied the minimum basis for social self-respect, by the British, by men, by the upper castes or classes, one lives in a constant search for self-acknowledgement, and this manifests itself in our obsession with status.

This theme runs deeper still in our foreign relations, where our history is one of repeated conquest and repression. In this century, we are fearfully aware of how far we lag behind comparable nations, especially China. Where our public officials are concerned, this manifests itself not in the diligent introspection and hard work required to compete with China, but in the kind of chest-beating and premature self-congratulation that would make ‘Comical Ali’, the former Iraqi Information Minister who denied the presence of American tanks in Baghdad while they rolled by in shot during a television interview, squirm. So in the wake of Beijing 2008, the Commonwealth Games came to be seen as an opportunity to show the world that there is another billion-strong growth story to write about.

“Chalta Hai”

There were two problems with this plan. The first was that by the time we had realised the instrumental value of a global event as a branding extravaganza, it was too late – five years had passed with little action. The second was the simple fact that India is not China. Assuming a linear trajectory, there is at least a fifteen year lag in our economic development, which is nothing to be ashamed of. This is to say nothing of the indefensible repression used by Beijing to ensure the delivery of its Olympic dream, thankfully not possible in India. We are growing rapidly and one day we will host events and impress the world, but there is no shame in acknowledging that we are not there yet. But in the world of Indian politics, rhetoric and reality rarely need to coincide - what made recent weeks different is the fact that our failures were in full view of a watching world and its media.

As the months passed, the assertions grew wilder and wilder. “These will be the best games ever held anywhere”, “these will be even better than Beijing”, “nobody will have ever seen anything like this before”. Beating one’s own drum so loudly is bound to inflate expectations. Yet the smiles and laughs could barely conceal the sheer panic on Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit’s face. Everybody had their hopes pinned on a miracle, and the national pride of a billion people was held hostage by a few overambitious, incompetent and corrupt technocrats. Even today, with the reputation of our country balancing on a knife’s edge, our smug representatives are telling the world that “Westerners have a different standard of hygiene”, that the collapse of a footbridge is a “minor incident” and that the Games are still going to be the “best ever”.

Rumours have become allegations and are poised to become legal charges against officials, including Suresh Kalmadi and even Michael Fennell, after irregularities were noticed in the bidding process for capital contracts. Every man for himself, it seems. Money disappeared into contractors’ pockets while hundreds of thousands of labourers were forced to work in sub-standard conditions, with substandard materials, virtually no safety provision and barely any specialised equipment. At least forty-five of them lost their lives. Just how does one expect “world class” facilities to be built when women and children are using their bare hands to dig foundations and cut paving slabs?

This brings to mind the other, equally frustrating and oft-used Indian phrase: “we are like that only”. We’ll beat our chests, congratulate ourselves on being an “economic superpower” and talk big about the downfall of western civilisation, but when the shit hits the fan, we’ll blame everybody else for having expected too much of us.

LOTS of concrete. No sport.

Yet even if the games had gone entirely to plan, if the infrastructure and venues had been in place six months ago and the world had been thoroughly impressed, there has always been one thing missing from these games: the sport.

Until they started pulling out of the event, I had not read a single article in any Indian newspaper, nor seen any bit on Indian television that made more than a passing reference to the athletes or to the centrality of sport in the entire affair. There has been ample coverage and discussion of the political machinations involved, in the logistics and security measures, the catering and of the “world-class infrastructure” being built, but never have the athletes or the games themselves been given anything but a footnote.

Who are the big names to watch? What are the Indian athletes’ expectations? How are the Games being used to encourage more sport in schools or to foster tomorrow’s gold medallists? Nothing. Not a word from the organising committee. They can describe at length the bidding process for the track surface, but nothing about who will be using it.

“The Games were never about sports,” writes MJ Akbar, editor of India’s Sunday Guardian. “They were a fortuitous opportunity for Delhi’s ruling class to divert a vast fortune from the national exchequer in the name of ‘national prestige’ and spend it on just those few parts of India’s capital where the elite live.” If that’s what we were going for, we could have just built the roads without the Games and saved ourselves the humiliation of being delivered ultimatums by Wales and New Zealand.

Don’t punish us.

Yet, after this diatribe, I find myself making a strange plea to the rest of the Commonwealth. Please don’t turn away from us. This is not representative of what we can achieve, indeed of what we have achieved. The spirit of these games, indeed of all sporting events, is one of reciprocity and fraternity. If an athlete is concerned about the quality of their accommodation, spare a moment to think of the thousands of Indian construction workers who have slept under tarpaulin through the heat and the monsoon or the hundreds of millions of Indian schoolchildren who are learning that in this century, they can achieve anything. Indians at home and around the world are ashamed and embarrassed, but this was the fault of the few, and if you let the games collapse, you take away not just pride, but a sense of self-worth that was only just beginning to awaken.

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