x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Delhi's image buckles under Games scandal

The Commonwealth Games were meant to confirm India as a new superpower. Instead, the controversy surrounding them has reinforced its most unflattering stereotypes.

Labourers work at Connaught place market underpass.
Labourers work at Connaught place market underpass.

When I moved to Delhi in March 2008, I brought with me childhood memories of the city's broad boulevards, robust tarmac and unfurled flyovers – the best roads, materially speaking, in any Indian metropolis. I'd wholly forgotten about the 2010 Commonwealth Games, but in my defence, so apparently had its organisers. 

As if waiting to take its cue from my arrival, and far too late for anybody's good, Delhi swung into action – its earthmoving and road-hacking, its stadium-building and debris-dumping. Ever since, the dominant soundtrack to my life in Delhi has been the baritone growl of heavy machinery; the dominant smell, that of thick dust; the dominant sensations, those of weariness and frustration.

When the bad news about the Games really began to flow a couple of weeks ago, accompanied by grim evidence - those photos of revolting bathrooms in the athletes' village, for instance - media criticism of the organisers reached its shrillest pitch. A few tense days went by, during which, under direct orders from the Indian Prime Minister, the government mobilised small armies of workers to hustle projects into at least a semblance of completion.

Then, when it appeared that the Games would, with some likelihood, proceed, a few commentators began to formulate earnest but unexpected defences, particularly in the British press. Delays were common with every such event, they wrote, ignoring how close to the wire this one had come. A level of corruption was to be expected in India, they added, offering the slim consolation that at least the Commonwealth Games hadn't brutally displaced as many people as did the Beijing Olympics. A stray commenter whom I chanced upon on a friend's Facebook page even did Delhi 2010 the favour of comparing it with Munich 1972 – everything was fine, he seemed to imply, because no athlete had actually died.

Perhaps these opinions were formed, in some cases, out of exaggerated political correctness, but they gave off the acrid smell of condescension. If India pulls the event off at all, they hinted, that will be enough. But it won't. To live through the preparations has been to stagger under the constant reminders of serious systemic problems in India. For over two years, merely by traveling the 12 kilometres from home to work, I was able to browse a great index of dysfunctions, all brought into sharp focus by the Commonwealth Games.

The first big stretch of road that I hit when I leave home is Yusuf Sarai, which runs through a dense market and connects the outer ring road to the inner. I have yet to see Yusuf Sarai at what may be called its most pristine. For the two-and-a-half years that I've lived in Delhi, it has existed in a severely disordered state. Initially, hulking machinery had gouged out the earth from under it, to lay a new line of the Delhi Metro in time for the Games. Shops on either side of the road were instructed to shut down while work progressed on their doorsteps. During rush hour, vehicles were often shunted from this artery to adjacent capillaries, where a thrombosis of traffic inevitably developed.

That subway line has now been completed (the Delhi Metro being notable for sticking to both budgets and schedules) but the general turmoil surrounding the Games infected even the Metro's usual punctiliousness. When they opened a few weeks ago, the interiors of the stations were clean and functional, but the areas where they rose out of the ground were caked with slush and construction detritus. The road remains scarred from its travails. The line's terminus, in the exurb of Gurgaon, is still so festooned with scaffolding that it is difficult to believe there is a building within.

Economists are fond of pointing out that Games like these have legacies, by which they mean crippling debt and white-elephant stadiums, but also public infrastructure that has been fast-tracked or conceptualised especially for the occasion. This particular Metro line, as well as a new airport terminal, would have been built anyway, but they arrived faster; a bouquet of flyovers designed to ease the movement of Games delegates will remain after October, for our use. All this was constructed as Delhi usually builds its roads and bridges - with minimal thought for how its citizens would live while its projects stutter towards completion.

The residents of Delhi do not ordinarily accept inconveniences with mere shrugs of their shoulders. Close to the seats of power as they are, they know well their abilities to protest loudly and visibly, to administer the swift kick that could bring those posteriors down. But with these Commonwealth Games, Delhiites have endured their troubles in relative silence. Perhaps it is only the thought of a glut of infrastructure suddenly handed to them that has kept them from open protest.

Last month, stuck in an auto rickshaw during rush hour, I saw welders on another new metro track that ran above us, working without any protective barriers, spraying sparks with almost deliberate precision onto a man riding pillion on a motorcycle below. When the first few embers hit his white shirt, he juddered with alarm, leaped off the motorcycle, and looked up. I fully expected him to hurl reams of invective upwards; Delhiites yell for far less. Instead, he stared morosely at the welders and then got back onto the motorcycle, waiting for the lights to change, brushing away with sullen resignation the sparks that continued to fall on him like glowing flakes of snow.

On days when Yusuf Sarai was choked, my auto rickshaw driver would, with a string of oaths, remove us from the fray and take us through a parallel road. This road runs for some of its length through an area known as Khel Gaon, Hindi for "Games Village," a reference to the athletes' village built for the 1982 Asian Games, the last major exhibition of sport that Delhi hosted. The village was, at the time of its construction, a complex of uncommonly thoughtful design; its architects extol it, in their distinctive patois, as "an urban pattern of low-rise high density based on a sequence of open spaces linked by shaded pedestrian pathways." It was one of the first planned housing projects to offer the sort of genteel comforts for which the phrase "south Delhi" is now shorthand. The surest testament to the village's appeal was that, shortly after the 1982 Games ended, the houses were promptly commandeered by bureaucrats, politicians and cabinet ministers.

Delhi's preparation for the 1982 Games was, to hear it from old-timers, less scattershot than its preparation for the 2010 Games, but not by much. Ambition outstripped ability; time seemed always to be in short supply; projects moved slowly, or not at all. The magazine India Today wrote, in June 1982, of spiraling costs, political hurly-burly, and an "Olympian race against time". It got so bad that the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, entrusted the task of readying Delhi to the one person who could shear through red tape and push proposals through without fear of consequences: her son, Rajiv Gandhi.

Even this didn't preclude dire emergencies. On the Games' first evening, after the opening ceremony, Rajiv Gandhi was informed that rain had burst through a flimsy roof and flooded the weightlifting stadium, where contests were scheduled the very next day. A thousand men were drafted at short notice, the story goes, and pressed into a night of unremitting labour. The stadium, finally looking less like an aquatics complex and more like a weightlifting arena, opened for business just after breakfast the following morning. (The technical challenge of building a stadium roof that actually stays up and keeps the elements out has yet to be licked. In July this year, after a night of moderate rain, the false ceiling of the table tennis stadium collapsed, admitting a torrent of water that warped the maple floors. Ten days before these Games were to begin, in an action-replay of history, part of the roof of the weightlifting arena fell down.)

The rationales for staging an international sporting event are often said to be threefold. The first is to attract the wallets of spectators who wish to watch, for instance, a fierce lawn-bowls battle between Anguilla and Zambia, and then go out and support the local economy via investments in hotel rooms, tourist knick-knacks and entertainment. The second is to reveal that the host city is not just a haven for muggings and slums, and that it is in fact a "world-class city," a phrase used with tiresome regularity. The third is to inspire the host country's youth with a passion for sport - and of these three purposes, this is the only one that isn't coldly materialistic, the only one that will bring not more money but more medals and more sporting honour, and perhaps fewer cases of child obesity.

For India, those first two reasons made a lot more sense in 1982 than they do today, but that third transformation is as elusive as it has ever been. In the 1982 Asian Games, India won 13 gold medals and 57 in total; in the 2006 Asian Games, held in Doha, India won 10 gold medals and 53 in total. So a generation of sports stars did not exactly spill out of India's schools after 1982, and I doubt they will after 2010, either. The logic is, regrettably, inverted: the grassroots network of sports academies and playing fields and athletics facilities must come before the "world-class" stadiums, so that when inspiration does strike, there is somewhere for these aspiring sportsmen and sportswomen to go to hit a ball around. At least as far as amateur sports facilities go, the voice in Kevin Costner's head in Field of Dreams was correct: if you build it, they will come.

Instead, the current batch of Indian athletes includes only the stray stars: Saina Nehwal in badminton; Vijender Singh and Mary Kom in boxing; Abhinav Bindra in shooting, who have clawed their way to international competitiveness. Unhappily, every one of these stars is eclipsed by even the meanest cricketer, and their sports are stunted compared to the gentleman's game. In July, Suresh Kalmadi, the chairman of the Commonwealth Games organising committee, requested that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) reschedule the cricket series it would play against Australia at the same time as the Games. The cricket, Kalmadi worried, would seduce audiences away from his extravaganza. (The BCCI, befitting its might and arrogance, declined.) In asking, Kalmadi betrayed a distressing lack of confidence in his own product. Perhaps he was simply being a realist, but the request seemed filled with such a curious faintheartedness that it could only be called, in the original sense of the word, pathetic.

Driving through Khel Gaon in the direction of my office, I pass to my right the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, constructed for the 1982 Asian Games and renovated extensively for the Commonwealth Games. For this renovation, the taxpayers were billed $210 million, which is just under half of what it cost Beijing to build a Bird's Nest Stadium from scratch. Two weeks before the Games were to begin I drove past the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium at night, noticing for the first time, as I passed under it, a new pedestrian bridge connecting the parking lot to the stadium. The next day the bridge came tumbling down, injuring 27 labourers. Unfazed, India's urban development minister, S Jaipal Reddy, appeared on television and told a reporter: "It's only a foot overbridge. You know it's not a major thing."

The question of corruption has hung over these Games like the ending to a much re-read novel, and in that inevitability lies its saddest aspect. (In multiple vernacular languages, in fact, the slang for corruption translates literally as "eating money," suggesting an act as essential to the system as eating is to us.) When corruption charges of some substance emerged over the course of this summer, the modi operandi were grimly familiar. In the first strategy, administrators inflate the bills they present to the government. In a detail worthy of one of José Saramago's government satires, it emerged in August that the Games' organisers had bought toilet paper at the rate of $80 (Dh296) per roll.

In the second, and more lucrative, method, administrators award projects directly to the companies which slip them the largest dollops of palm-grease. The companies, now wise in the knowledge that quality is no differentiator, build shoddily, as in the case of that doomed pedestrian bridge, which was erected by a firm that had previously been blacklisted. To cut further costs, the companies also pay their labourers far less than minimum wage and house them in shockingly sub-human conditions. In fact, the keenest athleticism associated with these Games may well turn out to be the fine balance displayed by its organisers. If the event ends successfully, its organisers would have begun preparations early enough to complete their work yet late enough to justify abandoning the traditional process of inviting bids. In India this process is semi-transparent at best, but it still beats the alternative, where, in the interests of saving time, projects were assigned to companies entirely at the organisers' whim.

The prevalence of such corruption is so well-accepted that a certain peevishness has even crept into the Games' promotional material. One television advertisement, sponsored by one of the Games' media partners, shows two men walking through a locker room swapping rumours about the scale of embezzlement. Behind them a self-righteous young man, listening to the conversation as he laces up his shoes, can contain himself no longer. He springs up and executes a forehand smash on the heads of our whining representatives using the business end of a squash racket. The tagline is admirable in its brazenness. "It is time to focus on the sport," it reads, urging us implicitly to forget about the corruption – a squash racket administered collectively to the heads of all those who will complain.

Down the road from my office is Connaught Place, a great, wheel-shaped confection of imperial architecture in the heart of Edwin Lutyens's Delhi – in the heart of all Delhi, in fact. Its neo-Georgian colonnades gallop around a central park, and they now shelter bars, restaurants and what can sometimes seem like thousands of Reebok showrooms, but also shops - and, so it feels, people - who have been there for every one of its 77 years. Connaught Place, wrote the poet Bahadur Tejani, is:

"Where the stately pillars throw cool shadows on the shoppers sheltering them from the roar of want and grief." When Delhi won the bid for the Commonwealth Games, back in November 2003, it was decided that Connaught Place needed a "facelift". At the time, there were precisely seven years left to plan and execute this spot of cosmetic surgery - three fewer years, in other words, than it took to actually build Connaught Place in the early 1930s. The motivations appeared sound – Connaught Place does draw, into its commodious bosom, nearly every tourist visiting Delhi – but it wasn't clear that any major renovation, beyond an energetic spring-cleaning, was even needed.

Nevertheless, the city started, as late as last summer, to repaint every façade in eggshell white, to excavate new pedestrian subways, to repave some arcades, and to lay massive storm-water drains. Traffic around Connaught Place, which at the best of times requires a certain ruthless diplomacy to negotiate, ground to a seething halt for the subsequent year. When I'd walk down to Connaught Place for lunch, I'd be able to cross the three lanes of road into the outer arcade with ease, choked as they were with vehicles. But then, within Tejani's stately pillars, I'd have to pick my way over hillocks of construction materials and under scaffolding, watching out for debris that could trip me up and paint that could drip on me.

This work has now been proclaimed complete. The new paint job looks thin and watery, a pallor of faint make-up on the face of an otherwise-dignified dowager. In August, realising that it couldn't possibly finish the pedestrian subways in time for the big event, the New Delhi Municipal Council revised its target date, to December 2011, a year and a bit after the Games will have ended, and quickly patched up the wounds in the earth with slabs of granite. They will, I presume, begin to suppurate again very soon, after the Games end and the athletes and tourists have gone home.

The tragedy of the lead-up to the Games is contained, it strikes me, within the tribulations that Connaught Place has endured over the last 12 months. The irony of the situation – a Raj-era building retaining a certain majesty for decades and then being ravaged and uglified within months in the name of improvement - offers itself as ammunition to the sort of crank who insists that the British should never have left India. But more seriously, it has sparked, even among Delhiites who are by no means cranks, a crisis of self-doubt that sits oddly with the economic exuberance and the predictions of superpower status which occupy the Indian air today. I've certainly never seen such sustained pessimism about a project on the part of the media, even schadenfreude,- as I have with the Commonwealth Games over the past two years. Neither have I heard so many despairing generalisations, in casual conversation, about how we're unable to get anything right. A successful Games now seems almost beside the point. Our comfortable bubbles of confidence have already been lanced - and that, more than any physical or sporting legacy, may be the most palpable effect of the Commonwealth Games upon Delhi.

Samanth Subramanian is a deputy editor at Mint, the New Delhi-based business newspaper. His book, Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast, is published by Penguin.