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Not all fun & games

Print edition : Jul 30, 2010 T+T-

The preparation for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi has led to large-scale displacement, but there is very little effort at relocation and rehabilitation.

NOW that the month-long football festivities are finally over, and people around the world have to recover from a self-imposed overdose of the beautiful game, it may be time to take stock. By almost all accounts, the FIFA World Cup in South Africa was a resounding success. The bright and sparkling new stadia were impressive and generally filled to capacity; the mood of infectious joy and celebration among spectators was only slightly dampened by the early exit of most of the African teams; and the unpredictability and high level of competitiveness of many matches brought surprise and delight to viewers across the world. Even the shocks and sorrows of the tournament reflected this success, of the ability of the game to make people forget about everything else but the activities of 22 men on an often wet field.

Certainly, there is much that the host nation and the South African government can be proud of. Most essential of all, the entire competition occurred in a context of relative peace and stability. The smooth conduct of a very complex logistical operation was itself a near miracle given the many uncertainties that characterise life in the developing world, including in Africa. So this is no small achievement.

The infrastructure for players and other visitors was good and the transport to and from venues was apparently efficiently organised. The venues themselves and the surrounding areas were clean and newly beautified in the effort to please and attract the foreign visitors. Thankfully, there was also little of the petty and sometimes extreme violence that plagues most South African cities, though local residents usually described this as a temporary phenomenon that was only possible during the championship.

For South Africans, this was also presented as part of a wider process of healing and dealing with the very wide racial and class differences that still characterise the society and economy, in the hope that the unifying and emotive power of sport would somehow transcend these sharp divisions. To what extent this more ambitious goal was realised is a more difficult question and one that probably provides less positive answers.

Of course, much will depend on how the feel-good factor of having successfully held a major international championship of this magnitude translates into a general and more permanent feeling of well-being for the entire population.

This in turn depends crucially on how involved the average resident felt in the process, and whether the process itself was designed to integrate people and make them feel that it benefits them.

On this specific matter, the planning, execution and management of the football World Cup left something to be desired for the ordinary citizen of South Africa. In fact, it was probably downright negative for the people who were displaced in the rapid rush to provide the spanking new infrastructure for the matches. There was already much debate within the country about the wisdom of spending so much on state-of-the-art sports facilities at vast expense, which are likely to be largely under-utilised in future, when basic needs for so much of the population are denied on the grounds of budgetary constraints.

A bitter joke doing the rounds is that, as has happened too often in history, once again the Africans have paid for a large party for the Europeans to come and enjoy themselves. The question is how expensive this will turn out to be in terms of the social fabric, or whether the costs will be counterbalanced by the pride of apparent national achievement.

During construction, and then again during the games held at the World Cup sites, there was a significantly increased rate of evictions. The estimates are that tens of thousands of people were evicted from their homes. In addition, thousands of small traders were evicted from their places of work and so lost their livelihood, without any compensation. Those evicted from their residences were often not compensated because as recent migrants or temporary settlers they did not have the required legal proof of residence that would entitle them to alternative residence and rehabilitation.

The lucky ones among the evicted population were sent to temporary relocation areas or transit camps. Reports about one such camp Blikkiesdorp in Cape Town suggest that the conditions in these camps are deplorable with makeshift residences relying on paper-thin walls that provide no protection from the elements, even in what has become a harsh winter. There is insufficient sanitation and lack of adequate access to health and educational facilities. The distance from the city means that there are few and meagre opportunities for work, and the commuting distance makes it next to impossible to work regularly in the city.

It is most unlikely that such people feel all that proud and happy about the holding of the World Cup. And so it becomes less likely that the successful completion of the games will be cause for wider celebration and greater integration in society. Far from reducing rifts and healing divisions, it may even make things worse because the process has been so exclusionary and has reinforced existing disparities.

Lesson for India

This experience has important lessons for India, and especially for the city of Delhi, which is soon to host the Commonwealth Games. The city of Delhi is already challenged in terms of meeting the infrastructure targets for the Games, with promised schedules being missed on a regular basis. Even so, it is possible and even likely that somehow the work will be finished on time, and allow the metropolis to be dressed up to receive all the international visitors.

Of course, this has also been associated with a huge amount of wasteful expenditure, as contractors have a field day with the numerous and often duplicating contracts that are involved in the rapid upgrading, modernisation and beautification of the city. The amounts spent become shocking especially in relation to the glaring gaps in availability of the basic infrastructure that affects the lives of most residents, for example, adequate sanitation and piped water in slum settlements or the provision of public toilets, or even sport facilities (just simple playgrounds) for children of poor families who live in congested spaces.

But the human costs of the process of preparation for the Commonwealth Games are already very great. To start with, there is the issue of the condition of the construction workers and their families. Despite many promises and indeed the promulgation of a law for their benefit, construction workers continue to be denied many of their rights, including adequate housing and sanitation, schooling and scholarships for their children and access to proper and affordable health services.

The construction has already led to large-scale displacement, with even less effort at relocation and rehabilitation than has occurred in South Africa. The often laughable and aesthetically misguided attempts to beautify different parts of the city have also been associated with throwing out street vendors, who lose their livelihoods. Slum settlements that are deemed unsightly are simply demolished. In some cases even the already pathetic sanitation facilities have been destroyed in the effort to force people to move away. Of course, the issue of compensation for the loss of home and livelihood is never even considered.

Meanwhile, the looming issue of inadequate number of hotel rooms (despite years of knowing what the requirements are likely to be) has forced the Delhi government to take desperate measures. In an extraordinary development, colleges in the city are being offered sums of money to renovate their hostel rooms to make them feasible places in which to house sportspersons and other visitors to the Games. The downside of this is that the colleges have to throw out the students who would normally reside in these hostels, until the Games are over.

The amazing thing is that such decisions are being taken without too much public outcry. But there is already a groundswell of protest building up among students who find that suddenly they have nowhere to stay, and that rents in any accommodation near their institutions have skyrocketed so much that they simply cannot afford them.

Surely, this cannot be called an inclusive process of organising the Games. Lakhs of people are being affected adversely, and often without even the notion of any compensation. So the social impact of this on the city, once the Games are over, is also likely to be negative.

If all the citizenry is genuinely to get some fun out of the Games, they should have been conceived, planned and executed very differently.