RAINING ON THE GAMES - Delhi in preparation embodies the arrogance of the ruling elite

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We are past the first week of September and it is still raining in Delhi. After years of living with climate (hot and sunny for nine months and then cold and smoggy for three), this year we’ve had weather. There’s green scum growing on brick, every other person smells powerfully of the damp and mornings darken with the promise of rainy-day holidays. And yet, most of us still leave home without umbrellas; after years, decades of spotty rain, it’ll take more than a few weeks of wet to get us to believe in the monsoon.

CWG1 (46K)My local taxi driver, in his capacity as absentee Sikh rich peasant, is delighted with the rain. But in his urban avatar, the rain makes him a ghoul. You wait, he says with gloomy satisfaction, the Jamuna will rise and wash the Commonwealth Games away. A quick vision of sprinters overtaken by water unspools in my head. Most of us in Delhi feel perversely vindicated when we come across a collapsed road or hear of a leaking stadium or pass labourers racing against the clock to pave the pavements. Dilliwallahs at the best of times feel no sense of belonging, and the disruptive run up to the Games has alienated us so completely from our city that we’ve become connoisseurs of our own suffering, Zen masters of self-directed schadenfreude.

In the normal course, if a municipality was to make a concerted push to supply its citizens and rate payers with properly flagged pavements, they would rejoice. Delhi has just acquired miles and miles of gorgeously tiled pavement; verges that divide arterial roads have been greened with nursery plants, stainless steel bus stops have mushroomed all over the city, distant suburbs and satellite towns have been hurriedly joined to the city’s centre with Metro lines, but the hectic, last-minute style in which all this has been done has provoked cynicism, not satisfaction.

Delhi’s citizens are convinced that billions have been skimmed off the top. In Lutyens’ Delhi, the pavements and verges have been dressed in red sandstone. Sculpted bollards in matching sandstone protect these pavements from rogue motor-cyclists and scooter drivers who would encroach on them. In Khan Market, home to the most expensive retail real estate in the country, some genius decided to flag the pavements with polished slabs of granite. When kitty-party dowagers began skidding off their glazed surfaces and breaking their hips, the granite was torn off and replaced with textured Kota stone. There’s an incommensurateness to this, a blitheness that feels wrong. Even in a city famous for its backhanders, the Games seem like a carnival of contractor-driven corruption.

As the party in government in Delhi and as the party to which the universally-denounced Suresh Kalmadi, the chief of the Indian Olympic Association, belongs, the Congress has to struggle to contain the fallout of this PR disaster. The current line is that the guilty will be punished, but after the Games; meanwhile we need to be patriotically uncritical till they’re done so that India Shines. The problem is that the Commonwealth Games don’t seem important enough for us to forgive the disruption they’ve caused. Forget the embarrassing comparison with Beijing’s magnificent Olympiad, Delhi itself hosted the Asian Games (in athletic terms a much more important contest) nearly 30 years ago, more efficiently, more thriftily and with much less inconvenience to its own citizens.

If Delhi’s Commonwealth Games symbolize anything, it is the conviction that the State owns the nation that it regulates. Reserved forest land was surreptitiously cleared to build sports facilities, college land was confiscated to build parking lots, college students in Delhi University were thrown out of their hostels for a whole term so that their rooms could be renovated to house sporting entourages. They were forced into paying- guest accommodation which they couldn’t afford. University cricket grounds were commandeered and converted into rugby facilities. Their surfaces were relaid, their dimensions changed and all this for a sport that isn’t played in Delhi’s colleges. It isn’t even clear if these ‘upgraded’ facilities will revert to the colleges and universities that own them or whether the Sports Authority of India will retain control over their use.

But the perfect illustration of the Indian political class’s belief that people are props for the State to arrange according to its convenience was Kalmadi’s letter to the sports minister, M.S. Gill, in early July, asking him to lean on the BCCI to cancel Australia’s cricket tour to India because it coincided with the Commonwealth Games:

“I need not stress the importance of not having any international cricket in India during the Commonwealth Games,” wrote Kalmadi. “I had written to Sharad Pawar as early as on July 1, 2009, seeking due consideration by the BCCI to ensure that it does not schedule any major cricket matches during the Commonwealth Games 2010 in in Delhi.”

It’s worth pointing out that the Australian itinerary did not feature any matches in Delhi. In effect, Kalmadi was demanding that there be no cricket on Indian television screens to ensure that the Commonwealth Games telecast owned Indian eyeballs by default. He wanted to use the government of India to regulate viewer preferences, to make the Commonwealth Games a ratings success by denying people the option of watching cricket. The most remarkable thing about this manoeuvre was that Kalmadi thought it was an entirely legitimate thing to do. Luckily for cricket fans and unluckily for Kalmadi, the one institution in India that’s nearly as powerful as the State is the BCCI, so he didn’t get his way. But it tells us something about the culture of governance in this country that he tried at all.

Meanwhile, three weeks from the Games, Delhi is still dug up, the new stadia and sporting facilities have overshot their completion deadlines time and time again and the lethal combination of relentless rain and a dug-up city has helped incubate a dengue epidemic in the city. Kalmadi continues to insist that these games will be the best Commonwealth Games ever, even as things continue to fall apart. A.R. Rahman’s insipid theme song has been received with raspberries, Indian athletes are being disqualified by the dozen for drug abuse and as if all this were not enough, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court has decided to pronounce on the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomi dispute 10 days before the Games begin.

In the normal course, misfortune on this scale would elicit sympathy, but the organizers of the Commonwealth Games have embodied the hubris and arrogance of India’s ruling elite so perfectly that schadenfreude is the only reasonable response. I hope the awfulness of these Games forever discredits the idea that India stands to gain from hosting extravagant circuses. May the monsoon persist into October, just to rain on this parade.

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