Even if the Commonwealth Games were supposed to be the Big Fat Indian Wedding where everything would work out well in the end, it is clear Manmohan Singh needs to hire a few good band-wallahs and fire a few. Will he do that as promised or, now that the Games are a “grand success”, will he pride-coat the shame and ridicule India was subjected to?
BV Rao | October 15, 2010
Reproduced from the latest issue of Governance Now, this article was written on October 9. Now on stands.
A few weeks ago, when the Great Indian Commonwealth Games Circus was at its best, our columnist Suresh Menon had written that the expectations from the Games were being driven so low that it just needed the microphone to function during oath-taking for the organisers to declare the Games a grand success!
As is obvious, much more than a mike worked well on October 3 and by all accounts the opening ceremony was spectacular. From the evidence of the first week, it is risk-free to assume, the roofs will hold for another week. And by October 15, when you get to read this a day after an equally (assumed) spectacular closing ceremony and a possible No. 2 slot on the medals tally, the news channels will not allow us to think and feel anything other than immense pride as Indians.
All the mighty pre-Games mess—the turf wars, lack of leadership, pass-the-parcel accountability, corruption, nepotism, inefficiency, leaking roofs, crashing bridges, stinking toilets, clogged drains, submerged roads and traffic jams—will already seem like a distant memory. There is serious risk that Suresh Kalmadi, who could have been lynched by mobs as recently as last week, will be knighted by the next and Sheila Dikshit, who could have lost an election last week, would win unopposed if she sought election by next week to be chief minister for life.
That is why, in spite of the mike working, Suresh Menon was not wrong. Indeed, it doesn’t take much to make Indians proud and India amnesic.
Soon the guests will go back and Delhiites will reclaim all the lanes. Delhi’s drive to the next traffic light will be hastened by a few minutes. That will be enough for all to wonder if they have been unfair to Sheilaji all this while.
Unlike Mani Shankar Aiyar, we are not sports-haters. It would not have gladdened our socialist hearts if the games had failed and India was shamed. Anyway, the queen’s lap (London) is perhaps not the best vantage point to pontificate about India’s hungry and rail against her Games. Neither do we think that the debate should be about priorities; it is ridiculous to contend that everything else must be on hold till the last hungry stomach is filled. Hunger, as Suresh Kalmadi and his band of boys will tell you, is not only of food and can be a bottomless pit.
No, the Games are not the debate. It doesn’t take much to organise a sporting event involving 71 countries for all of 11 days. Delhi had done damn good job of hosting 23 countries for Asiad way back in 1982 when, thankfully, Mani Shankar Aiyar was still a babu without a voice and 24x7 news was not around to amplify every noise. The circus that was conducted before and around the Games is the debate.
The Games were made to stand on two stilts: legacy (of infrastructure) for Delhi and national pride. No less a person than the prime minister invoked national pride to plead for postponing all questions of accountability and action against the inept and the corrupt till after the Games. Now that the Games are over, let’s restrict the debate to just the two issues: legacy and national pride.
Legacy for Delhi
When Delhi’s citizens were bearing the brunt of the preparations, Sheila Dikshit would blame the rains and counsel patience and forbearance because she was doing all this for Delhi. The legacy of infrastructure that her government was getting up would make life easy for all and make Delhi a global city, no less. Undoubtedly, when so much money is poured into a city in such a short span of time, some things have to improve. And they have, that is undeniable. The rains have stopped and the slush has given way to neatly paved roads and newly laid (though rarely used) pedestrian ways that make at least parts of central and south Delhi look a little more beautiful than before. Soon the guests will go back and Delhiites will reclaim all the lanes and access all the flyovers. Delhi’s drive to the next traffic red-light will be hastened by a few minutes and that will be enough for everybody to wonder if they have been unfair to Sheilaji all this while. “Kuchh bhi kaho, games ke chalte Dilli toh sudhar gayi yaar.” Yes, that is already getting to be the refrain of Delhiites suffering guilt pangs for cursing their favourite, aunt-next-door chief minister: “Say what you may, Delhi has definitely improved thanks to the Games.”
While imploring Delhi to wait for the Games to be over, Sheila Dikshit must have banked upon this fickleness of the people and the narrow (how-soon-can-I-get-to-the-next-red-light) yardstick used by its great vocal motor-owning minority (13%) for measuring “improvement”. It doesn’t take much to con Delhi and conned it has been.
Con No. 1
Take the Games village for example. As Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta have pointed out in their book, Sellotape Legacy: Delhi and the Commonwealth Games, the village was supposed to be a hostel for Delhi University students post Games. That is what India promised in the bid for the Games in 2003. That would have been a legacy to be proud of. But as supreme court judge, G S Singhvi, rightly said, the Commonwealth Games would be public purpose only till October 14, after that it will be private pursuit. Within a few days from now, Delhi’s uber rich will be vying with one another to buy up houses here in the range of Rs 6 crore or more per flat.
Photo Ravi Chaudhary
The flyover on Nizamuddin bridge road opposite the Games Village (visible to the left of frame) built only to facilitate easy entry and exit for the rich and famous who will occupy the Village soon. Cost to taxpayer: over Rs 700 crore.
Even foreign delegates say the Village is the best any Commonwealth Games has put up. But the Village will not be Delhi’s to feel proud of, it will belong to about 1168 of the richest of its rich. Exclusive, absolutely private. And to think that the Delhi Development Authority sunk in about Rs 700 crore of taxpayer money to bail out the private contractor who has now taken it to court (what’s the charge, misplaced munificence?)! So, that's the legacy. After today, the ordinary Delhiite wouldn't even have the right to look in the direction of one of the proudest legacies of the Games.
Con No. 2
The ride to Mayur Vihar and Noida (across the Yamuna in East Delhi) was made smooth and easy many years ago from the Nizamuddin bridge side. That ride got even better and faster after the new flyover opened a few months ago. Delhiites must be happy with this “legacy of the games” for sure. Except that this flyover was never meant to be for Delhi. This was purely and simply meant to make life easy for the 1,168 families that will soon inhabit the Village. The only purpose this flyover serves is to give these favoured few families easy entry and exit to the Nizamuddin bridge and save them the trouble of waiting at a traffic light just as they emerge from their gated colony. It will not get the rest of Delhi a minute faster to Mayur Vihar or Noida than before.
Photo Ravi Chaudhary
The U-turn on the Badarpur-Mehrauli road
There was of course a way of avoiding the traffic light without building the flyover. The Nizamuddin bridge road is so wide that provision could have been made for the Villagers to take a free left turn, join the traffic and then take a U-turn further down the road (to head for Central and South Delhi). This kind of innovation is in evidence across Delhi where wide roads permit a portion to be cordoned off for U-turns to minimise traffic stoppages. That would have meant a signal-free journey for the well-heeled Villagers at no extra cost to the taxpayer. Instead, a six-lane flyover was built because their time is precious and you can’t make them drive an extra kilometre. The irony is that the Village doesn’t need this access at all; it already has easy access to Central and South Delhi from the Akshardham side. The cost of this useless legacy for the taxpayer: Rs 90 crore.
Con No. 3
Same is the case with the “signal-free” travel between Mayur Vihar and Noida. Two new flyovers have sprung up on this long road. This stretch was a traffic nightmare with at least three traffic light stoppages. It needed tending to much before the Games came acalling. But the government of course got thinking only because it wanted to provide signal-free access to the cycling route that traverses Noida. So the whole stretch of the road was widened more than two times over to make space for the two successive flyovers (one of them six-lane).
Here again, it did not cross anybody’s mind that if provision was made for three U-turns on this widened road, it would have provided Delhi the same relief that two gigantic flyovers will. But creating “legacy” for a city is no joke and always costs some small change. Which in this case is about Rs 400 crore!
Photo Ravi Chaudhary
The gigantic flyover on the Mayur Vihar-Noida road (shot from the Noida end). This flyover was built to facilitate a signal-free ride to athletes from the Village to the Velodrome in Noida. Cost Rs 360 crore. Two U-turns could have achieved the same purpose for a fraction of that cost.
These are examples that are evident to a layman. Urban planners can point out many more and question this whole political sales pitch of the Games as the impetus for Delhi’s claim to global greatness (see report “Delhi dazzled to deceive” in latest issue of Governance Now). It is estimated that Rs 1,00,000 crore (close to $ 20 billion) have been pumped into Delhi in a short span of three years (the Delhi government itself admits to Rs 87,500 crore). A few new cities could have been created with that kind of money, forget about refurbishing just one. No city in recent memory has poured in so much into infrastructure. If all that money indeed went where it was meant to go, Delhiites would not have to die to experience heaven. It could have been created right here, right now.
So, that is the big question prime minister Manmohan Singh and chief minister Sheila Dikshit have to answer. If so much money was actually spent, where is the evidence? Why are only parts of Delhi which were already its showpieces, the better for it?
The pride sledgehammer
Days before what seemed like a disaster waiting to happen, the prime minister got into action. He held a flurry of meetings and announced that since national prestige, pride and honour were at stake, the government should be allowed to tackle the problem on hand and everybody would be held accountable after the event. That was an entreaty to the media to be kind. The government couldn’t have had a kinder response. Suddenly the discourse changed and the channels started singing the “pride” tune willingly suspending the questioning (and perhaps enjoying the ringing of the cash registers from the CWG advertising).
Unlike Mani Shankar Aiyar, we are not sports-haters. It would not have gladdened our socialist hearts if the Games had failed and India was shamed. Anyway, the queen’s lap (London) is not the best vantage point to pontificate about India’s hungry and rail against her Games.
A few days into the Games, that positive approach is in danger of being replaced by total jingoism. The international delegates are happy, the government is happy, Delhi is happy and, most important, the national media is happy. Everybody says the nation can be proud because of two spectacular ceremonies, a second place in the medals tally and stadium roofs holding for 11 full days. Quite forgetting the fact that nothing we do can wipe off the shame of an entire national government and a city government—the prime minister, the sports ministry, the UD ministry, the Group of Ministers, Delhi’s lieutenant governor, CM and her entire Cabinet—consumed by no business other than hosting of a sporting event for the better part of a week. Or an entire fleet of secretaries to the government of India supervising the cleaning of toilets at the Games Village for three full days!
It is of course tough to turn the attention of a happy nation to troubling questions such as why and who allowed a simple sporting event to be scaled up to the level of a nation’s prestige? Or, in a country that has an allocated budget of Rs 120,000 crores under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) for 63 cities for five-years, which great financial and economics wizard, the prime minister himself, they say, is one, cleared Rs 100,000 crore for the renewal of one city for a 11-day event?
Even if this was supposed to be—as sports minister M S Gill so eloquently pointed out—the Big Fat Indian Wedding where everything would work out well in the end, it is clear Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet needs better bandwallahs and tentwallahs. There are myriad other questions that need answers and accountability. That is why it is time to remind the prime minister of his pre-Games pledge to the nation that post-Games people will have to pay for sullying our image irrevocably. Time to ask him: Whose head, prime minister?
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