Punctured hubris

Published : Oct 22, 2010 00:00 IST

The Commonwealth Games fiasco should impel India to do serious introspection and search for a different kind of global prestige.

THE countless snafus, management disasters, revelations of odious corruption, and reports of brutalisation of large numbers of poor people that have attended the preparations for the Delhi Commonwealth Games (CWG) have tarnished India's global image in ways that should deeply shame our power elite. One tangible effect, expressed in language it understands only too well, is highlighted in a note prepared by a unit of the investment agency Moody's.

This says: Confidence in India's infrastructure, its capacity to organise large events, and its reputation as a tourist destination have all been brought into question. The negative publicity could deter foreign investment and give multinational businesses considering expanding in India reason to think twice. This touches the core not just of the economic policy sacred to our rulers but their very self-esteem.

Moody's Analytics says the damage caused by the Games' shoddy and sleazy management will stretch far beyond the event. Concerns regarding safety, security, site preparedness are tarnishing the country's global image. 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 fiasco is undermining [the Games'] anticipated benefits, including increased global exposure and an improved international image.

The collapse of the foot overbridge near the Nehru Stadium, which made the headlines the world over, could turn out to be the single most damaging event for India's reputation after the nuclear tests of 1998. It is not just the colossally poor planning, incompetence and mismanagement of the Games' organisers that has shocked the world.


Three other factors matter. First, the milking of the Games through horrendously corrupt contracts typical of a banana republic. Second, the ruthless exploitation of workers, razing of slums, displacement of tens of thousands of families and the summary forced repatriation of one lakh migrant workers to their States. Third, the chain of responsibility stretches well beyond the Organising Committee and the Delhi government right up to the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister's Office, which frequently intervened to cajole and order the organisers into meeting their always-slippery targets.

It is doubtful whether the head of government in a halfway developed country would have played such a visibly active role and bestowed such a high status on the Games. The higher the status, the greater the likelihood that the world would judge the Games' failure not as a sporting disaster but as a far greater social and political catastrophe.

That said, all recent international sports mega events have been exorbitant and largely irrelevant to the quality of sports, and disrupters of urban life, displacers of people, and failures as tourist attractions.

Thus, no mega event has broken even in the past four decades, barring the Los Angeles Olympics. China spent $33 billion on the Beijing Olympics in order to be admitted to the community of nations, as the International Olympics Committee misleadingly calls countries that seek a high profile through mega spectacles.

The $33 billion exceeds the sum needed ($25 billion) to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goal on world poverty. According to the Housing and Land Rights Network, Olympic Games have uprooted and displaced some two million people over two decades worldwide. As many as 1.5 million people were evicted from Beijing alone.

India won the CWG bid in 2003 by offering grants to numerous countries ostensibly for sports promotion and training . The government was desperate to rival China and show that it could successfully host a mega event with world-class facilities. The facilities were planned to be even more lavish than those in the 2006 CWG in Melbourne and would cost nearly three times more.


Melbourne added only 3,000 new hotel rooms for its Games. Delhi wanted to add 40,000. The Games Village food menus are excessively opulent, with Norwegian salmon and New Zealand lamb offered for lunch and dinner and over 60 items for breakfast alone, including eight kinds of fruit juices and six kinds of deli cold cuts. Several Western representatives expressed their surprise (and pleasure) at this lavish hospitality all at the poor Indian public's cost.

This partially reflects the servility typical of Fourth World elites towards the West. To understand this particular kind of depravity, one only has to glance at the menu cards, preserved as mementos, of the dinners that India's maharajas would host for the British resident or visiting minor royalty, with delicacies from different continents, while their subjects starved. The lavish hospitality at the Games was also designed to bloat up the size of contracts, raising the scale of corruption.

There are several estimates of the Games budget including Urban Development Minister Jaipal Reddy's official one of Rs.28,054 crore. The best ones suggest it is of the same order as the budget of the government's flagship social programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. This is outrageous in and of itself. But the fact that its fallout will probably be negative makes it even more egregious.

All this should at least jolt us all into critical introspection about how the world sees emerging power India, a description our rulers relish as they strut about in the limelight refracted from India's membership of the G-20 and the world's recognition of India as the next China, the world's second fastest-growing economy and a major military power.

For all the attention lavished upon India by the major powers' leaders, the country is seen by the global public as a walking embodiment of contradictions: a big, expanding economy with mass poverty and multiple deprivations; home to some of the world's richest billionaires (who control a quarter of India's wealth) and also to the world's largest group of hungry, disease-ridden and disadvantaged people; an information technology superpower, which however holds an under-5-per cent share of the world's software market.

India is a nuclear power, 79 per cent of whose rural population and 46 per cent of whose city-dwellers have no toilets. It is a nation that calls Gandhi its father but is among the most profligate, corrupt and violent in the world. Its government has global military ambitions but has often tense relations with its neighbours and cannot influence major events in its own backyard witness the recent developments in Sri Lanka and Nepal.

India's dominant image is still that of a country blessed with unparalleled ethnic diversity, which cannot accommodate the aspirations of the Kashmiris or many groups in the north-eastern region and uses force against them. India is a democracy but has not broken out of the Third/Fourth World straitjacket of horrendous rich-poor disparities, social strife, insurgencies and savage repression a crumbling, failing or flailing state in many provinces, which does nothing for its people.

India used to be greatly respected in the Global South as a campaigner for decolonisation, North-South equality, peace and disarmament. India's opposition to apartheid significantly shaped global public opinion. And India's principled stand on nationhood was admired. Today, India has become an apologist and camp-follower of Israel.

For decades, India was considered the unrivalled science superpower of the Third World. It is no longer. Nor, in deference to private-profit motives, is it willing to share its knowledge with others. New Delhi is seen in the South as following the former imperial powers (and China) in building a mercantile-colonial relationship with Africa and as having reneged on the global agendas of justice, balance and peace as another cynical power on the rise.

This image would not have changed much even if the Games were a success. After all, images cannot differ too widely from the objects from which they derive. India will earn the world's respect if it eradicates poverty, achieves ethnic and religious harmony, deepens its democracy by making it participatory, and pursues inclusive, equality-enhancing growth. India will be feared as a military power (a doubly cynical one because of its past advocacy of nuclear disarmament) but respected and admired if it takes up universal causes like peace, global justice and fighting climate change.

Instead of pursuing these objectives, India's ruling elite wants a cheap shortcut to glory through the CWG and status symbols such as a permanent Security Council seat. The G-4 (Germany, Japan, Brazil and India) have revived their bid for this. But the Big Five are not about to open up the Council membership issue. Nor will India's claim go unopposed not just by Pakistan but by countries such as Mexico too.

This search for prestige will prove as futile as the craving for recognition through the CWG. India must reorder its foreign policy priorities in line with its obligations to its people and to the world public's aspirations for a just and equitable order.

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