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Women workers sweep dust and stones from an access road to the Buddh International Circuit on the outskirts of New Delhi, the venue for the first Indian formula One race taking place this weekend.
Women workers sweep dust and stones from an access road to the Buddh International Circuit on the outskirts of New Delhi, the venue for the first Indian formula One race taking place this weekend.

India's race for F1 status leaves poor in the dust

Staging of F1 is seen by some as proof of India's new global standing but critics say it is an outrage given the high levels of poverty.

SALARPUR, INDIA // India will hold its first Grand Prix this weekend - a glitzy coming-out party for an emerging economic juggernaut that is lost on villagers such as Meera, standing by a fetid pond near the brand new Formula One racetrack with a child covered in warts.

"What is this Formula One? I learnt only recently that some of our land was acquired for it," said Meera, a mother of four who goes by one name. The floodlights of the US$400 million (Dh1.47 billion) F1 circuit that can hold 100,000 spectators could be seen in the distance.

Seen by its supporters as an example of how India's private companies can organise complex, high-tech and global events, the Grand Prix has reignited India's perennial questioning of how far the country should go down the globalisation road.

For critics, it is an example of skewed economic growth, an elitist event where even the cheapest tickets are unaffordable for most people and an event that has no roots among India's 1.2 billion people.

For the moment, that questioning is lost in a media frenzy.

Boosted by Lady Gaga, Bollywood and cricket stars, the Grand Prix may help India regain its self confidence after a scandal-plagued Commonwealth Games sparked headlines mocking the Asian power's arrival on the world stage.

Run by Jaypee Sports International, a subsidiary of the Jaypee Group construction and infrastructure giant, the F1 event has come in on schedule with almost none of the cost overruns, corruption and shoddy construction that plagued the government-run Commonwealth Games last year.

"The world's perception of India is going to change after the Grand Prix and people will forget what happened because of the Commonwealth Games," said Jaiprakash Gaur, the founding chairman of the Jaypee Group, said.

The event is also just the latest example of international sports bodies ensuring they get a foot in this booming Asian marketplace with a huge advertising base of millions. India has already attracted the attention of top European football clubs.

Nevertheless, India is playing catch-up with its fellow emerging-market rivals. China held a successful Olympics while Brazil will hold the next edition of the football World Cup - and Russia follows four years later. Brazil also has the 2016 Olympics.

But what price this sovereign branding game?

The extravagance of the event and questions about land seizures to make way for the circuit have sparked criticism. Critics have cited it as an example of misplaced priorities in a country where malnutrition rates rival sub-Sarahan Africa.

The cheapest tickets are about 2,500 rupees (Dh185) - about half the monthly wage of a cleaner. The most expensive corporate boxes go for about $200,000 - and nearly all have been sold.

When the event was being planned in 2009, then-sports minister MS Gill dismissed it as "expensive entertainment".

"In many ways it epitomises what is wrong with this country," said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a political commentator. "One section of India would like to tell the rest of the world about how fast-growing we are. Just come here and see the inequality and poverty on the ground and you get a reality check."

Situated in western Uttar Pradesh state, about an hour's drive from New Delhi, the Formula One track is connected by a new motorway through the capital's booming outskirts of anonymous office blocks and cement skeletons of soon-to-be-built colleges.

Within the circuit grounds, where shiny Mercedes Benz display cars are parked, women workers used brushes and their hands to sweep dust and stones from an access road, their children playing nearby.

In nearby Salarpur village, Meera, who is illiterate and can only guess her age, held her sick child in her arms. He has suffered malaria twice. Rubbish lay in ponds of stagnant water. A young calf grazed on rubbish.

"I don't understand this concept of cars racing for entertainment," she said. "People pay money to watch this? Like a movie?"

Nearby, workers sprayed the manicured lawns around the F1 track with water in last-minute preparations. Meera, who has electricity for four hours a day, must walk half an hour to the nearest water pump.

A successfully held event would be an example of India finally showing what it is capable of, its supporters hope.

"This comes after a bad year for India," said V Ravichandar, the chairman of Feedback Consulting in Bangalore, which advises multinationals. He was referring to a string of corruption scandals that hit foreign investment in India amid growing instability of the Congress-led coalition government.

"To have an event that goes smoothly will show that the private sector is capable of pulling off events like this."

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