Delhi's Common-poverty Games

In preparation for the upcoming 2010 Commonwealth Games, Delhi is bursting with expensive construction and renovation projects. But these measures will do little to alleviate the living conditions in its slums, says Michael Arthur
Michael Arthur
14 June 2010

Few would describe Delhi as a calm and peaceful city. But the noise pollution has reached a crescendo recently as construction workers toil day and night. This October, once the baking north Indian summer has eased, Delhi will stage the 2010 Commonwealth Games. In a city where millions live in utter destitution, vast stadiums are being constructed at immense cost.

Developers keen to cash in on the anticipated influx of visitors are building a rash of new hotels. Construction workers can be seen on building sites throughout the city without hardhats or even shoes, their small children beside them as they break stones.

No city as poor as this has ever attempted to stage such a tournament. The promise is that the Games will herald a new chapter in Delhi's history, enhancing its international reputation and providing a major and lasting economic boost.

But Delhi may have been sold a lie. The legacy of staging major sporting events is, at best, patchy. Athens was sold the same dream. When the Greek capital won the right to stage the 2004 Olympics it was billed as an opportunity for renewed wealth and glory for this most ancient of cities. But the legacy is a Greek tragedy of immense financial debt. Up to 21 of the 22 stadiums built for the Olympics now lie abandoned. Some have become gypsy camps. The Athens Olympics cost a reported £9.4bn, leaving a debt of €50,000 for each Greek household. Six years later, Greece is on the precipice of utter economic ruin.

But Delhi builds on. High fences are being erected to hide unsightly slums from the anticipated visitors. In the words of the Indian Express newspaper: "If you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. That seems to be the view of the authorities."

The event offers the Delhi authorities the chance to sell the lie of the shining new India. This is a country which has higher rates of child malnutrition than sub-Saharan Africa, but which also puts satellites into space. Now Delhi is spending immense sums on a sporting event - even diverting funds specifically earmarked for anti-poverty measures.

At first, the fear was that the city's notoriously terrible transport infrastructure would creak under the pressure of Commonwealth Games visitors. But the new fear is quite the opposite.

South Africa, another country of extreme wealth disparity, is hosting the football World Cup. Hoteliers in the country have reported an alarmingly low levels of uptake for hotel rooms. According to the Daily Telegraph: "Many spent thousands of pounds renovating their properties and are struggling to recoup the costs. Thomas Cook has already slashed travel prices by more than £1,000 after only half the expected 500,000 fans booked flights to see matches live."

The World Cup, the globe's most popular sporting event, is threatening to be an economic dud. What chance, therefore, does Delhi have with the Commonwealth Games? In the global economic downturn, Delhi has been persuaded to stage a cripplingly expensive party, and the guests might not even turn up.

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