Wake-up call

Published : Oct 22, 2010 00:00 IST

THE COLLAPSED UNDER-CONSTRUCTION foot overbridge near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the main venue for the Commonwealth Games, in New Delhi on September 21.-KAMAL NARANG

THE COLLAPSED UNDER-CONSTRUCTION foot overbridge near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the main venue for the Commonwealth Games, in New Delhi on September 21.-KAMAL NARANG

The exposure of being an incompetent organiser of an international event should remind one and all of how flawed is the hype surrounding 'resurgent' India.

THERE have been dark clouds hovering over the Commonwealth Games in Delhi for some time now, both literally and figuratively. Any hopes of hosting the most successful Games ever must surely have been completely dashed even among the most enthusiastically optimistic of self-deluding organisers. Surely, the best expectation or hope that anyone can now have of these Games is that they go off peacefully, without any major mishap and with a minimum of additional national embarrassment.

The national media have been crying themselves hoarse for some time now about the poor planning, confused approach, wasteful spending and, of course, massive corruption that have characterised the official preparations for the Games.

Media allegations have been increasingly supported by all-too-depressing empirical evidence, in the form of shoddy construction, deaths of workers and others during the building work, and collapses of buildings and bridges. The disruption and disarray caused by the preparations have been so extensive that for the past few months it has been next to impossible to find a single resident of the city of Delhi and its suburbs who has a good word to say for the Games. And this was well before the most recent public humiliations experienced by the organisers.

Given all this, it was more than surprising to note the rather dismissive and then lethargic responses to these allegations and concerns at both State government and national government levels. After all, this was an event that presumably was bid for and taken on to showcase the country and thereby the government, to present an image of positive and energetic efficiency at least in terms of organising an international event, and then explicitly to provide a positive legacy. Even those who have been fiercely critical of such an aim as well as of the policy of expending huge resources on this rather limited objective somehow assumed that when push came to shove the government would make sure that the final outcome would deliver on this.

But almost characteristically, domestic criticisms and warnings proved to have little effect in galvanising the government into real action to rectify the unfortunate situation in any meaningful way.

It took international criticism not only from the CWG organisers but also from global media and from participating teams to force the last-minute changes that finally occurred, although of course it remains to be seen how effective those changes actually are.

And then, of course, the indictment came from a quarter that the government is especially sensitive about an international credit rating agency. Globally, credit rating agencies, including the big two, Moody's and Standard and Poor, are themselves currently the subject of much valid criticism. Their incompetence and even complicity in the United States financial crisis; the general tendency they have revealed of being behind the curve for most economies or sectors that they deal with, the large and clear evidence of conflicts of interests; and the opacity of their own formulations and methods of arriving at ratings: all these have been rightly attacked. Indeed, it could be argued that the external reputation and public rating of credit rating agencies have never been so low.

Even so, governments, including the Indian government, remain sensitive to what the credit rating agencies say. And they get extremely concerned when such agencies, no matter how discredited they may be otherwise, point to anything that could damage investor perceptions about the Indian economy.

So when Moody's Analytics, a research unit of Moody's, also joined in the general condemnation and was widely quoted in the national and international press, the concern in official circles that are otherwise unconnected to the Games was palpable.

Reports on the comments quote this group as having argued as follows: Concerns regarding safety, security and site preparedness are tarnishing the country's global image.... India's reputation as a tourist and investment destination could be damaged.... Confidence in India's infrastructure, its capacity to organise large events, and its reputation as a tourist destination have all been brought into question.... Fears regarding safety and security have been upstaged by more immediate concerns about India's preparedness to host the event, following the collapse of a pedestrian bridge, allegations of widespread corruption and revelations that the athletes' housing was unfinished days before competitors are scheduled to arrive.... The decision by a number of individual athletes to pull out... have dominated headlines at a time when India should have been showcasing its rising economy, recent infrastructure development, and improved business environment.... The fiasco is undermining the anticipated benefits of hosting a major international sports event.

The bottom line, according to this report, is that the negative publicity that has been generated by this event could deter foreign investment and give multinational businesses that are considering expansion in India a reason to think twice. To a government whose sensitivity to foreign investor perceptions is so strong, this kind of criticism is devastating.

But in the midst of all the breast-beating that is going on about the terrible mess that has been created so far, perhaps there is a need to stand back and consider the matter with a less negative attitude. Certainly, there is national shame, embarrassment and also anger at the way in which the Games were conceived, planned and executed in Delhi. Certainly, this has exposed not only well-known weaknesses in our system but even weaknesses that were earlier not widely known to exist. Certainly, the international exposure of the nation as being so incompetent could easily have been avoided as the country does not lack competent managers who could have handled what is ultimately not such a difficult job over several years.

But maybe such exposure was necessary to remind us, and particularly our policymakers and the media, of how flawed has been the hype surrounding resurgent India. The fact that the Indian economy has shown high gross domestic product growth rates in the recent past and generated a significant number of dollar billionaires has not just created a false sense of overall prosperity and completely unfounded complacency, but also resulted in recklessly optimistic predictions about India's future progress.

It has made us forget that the bulk of our population is still very poor in income terms even by the standards of most developing countries and that we have failed them in possibly more important ways: inadequate and even reduced access to proper food and nutrition; appalling lack of infrastructure in some of the most basic senses (for example, around 40 per cent of rural households still do not have access to electricity connections); often terrible and mostly privatised health services with one of the largest proportions of out-of-pocket spending by households in the world; completely insufficient educational facilities, with large and even growing gaps between urban and rural students, rich and poor students, boys and girls; and a predominance of informal employment in poor conditions, with growing open unemployment for the most vulnerable group of youth.

One problem with the recent growth trajectory has been that the sheer size of India can allow the elite to forget, often for fairly long periods, the broader failures of the development project in India thus far. It can allow the elite to ignore not just the needs but also the aspirations of the majority of the people in society. It can allow the privileged few to not just skim off most of the benefits of the growth that does occur but also imagine that they are on the threshold of a new India in which they do not have to keep worrying about the material conditions of the great unwashed masses because they are now globally relevant players.

Maybe this kind of rude shock was necessary to bring down to earth people who had been dreaming along these lines. Maybe the inability to host a relatively small international event will bring home the lesson that real economic success does not come so easily or cheaply. Maybe it will force such people to realise that real development must involve first and foremost a focus on improving the material and socio-economic conditions of most of the people. Maybe they will recognise that without such a focus attempts to focus on glittering new infrastructure and the like will quickly be exposed to be hollow, vacuous and even pathetic.

So far, such a realisation has not dawned fully on those who rule in Delhi. In the run-up to the Games, beggars were removed and placed in temporary makeshift camps to keep them out of the public view of foreigners. Streets with filthy and messy sections have been provided with screens bearing the CWG logo and mascot to hide the muck from visitors' eyes. Street vendors and others have been displaced and summarily deprived of their livelihood in order to provide a clean and green image to the wider world.

Obviously, all such attempts are now laughable. And that is probably a good thing. It is a hard lesson for the government to learn, but learn it must: you cannot get others to respect you if you do not respect yourself and all your citizens first. If this actually gets driven home to those in charge, this will indeed be the silver lining in the current cloudy fiasco. It might even make the whole sorry endeavour worth it after all.

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