x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Trail of corruption leads to Commonwealth opening

Government finds it difficult to hold specific people to account for irregularities in spending and shoddy work on village and venues.

Soldiers watch the rebuilding yesterday of a footbridge that collapsed last week outside Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
Soldiers watch the rebuilding yesterday of a footbridge that collapsed last week outside Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

NEW DELHI // Thousands of workers have been frantically cleaning and patching facilities for the Commonwealth Games in the past week, but the deeper stain of corruption and inefficiency will prove harder to remove. Some estimates show a budget that has ballooned to more than US$11.8 billion (Dh43.3bn) - 28 times the original estimate - and many of the venues were completed late and are in questionable condition.

Officials have begun squabbling over who is to blame, but India's Byzantine government makes it difficult to hold specific people to account. Observers say the debacle has highlighted long-standing problems in the way public-sector projects are undertaken. A lack of centralised control is to blame for a lack of accountability and rampant corruption. A report by the government's Central Vigilance Commission in July found evidence of widespread "procedural irregularities" and "large-scale corruption" in the awarding of contracts to developers, and has opened cases related to at least 15 construction projects.

Another concern is the multitude of organisations that play a role in development projects. The contract for the Games Village - which has been called "filthy" and "unliveable" - was awarded by the Delhi Development Agency (DDA) in September 2007 to Emaar MGF, a joint venture between India's MGF Development Ltd and Dubai's Emaar. But the project was then subcontracted to a company called Ahluwalia Contracts, and from there to a myriad of smaller companies.

"We estimate there were in excess of 50 subcontractors and petty subcontractors involved in the work," said Rajeev Sharma, Delhi director for Builders and Workers International, an umbrella organisation for construction unions. Originally, the athletes' village was supposed to be finished last December. This was pushed back to March and finally to June. With work still going on today, it remains unclear whether all the residential towers will be open when the Games begin on Sunday.

The development also had to pick its way through a forest of red tape imposed by numerous government agencies - including the DDA, Public Works Department, New Delhi Municipal Council, Municipal Corporation of Delhi, Sports Authority of India, Archaeological Survey of India and others. "There is no centralised agency and so there is a lack of coordination and planning," Mr Sharma said. Emaar MGF says it was responsible only for the basic structures of the Games Village, and that last week's complaints, related to housekeeping issues, were the responsibility of the Games Organising Committee.

The beleaguered head of the organising committee, Suresh Kalmadi, has tried to shift blame to a former sports minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar. He held the office between 2006 and 2008, but was ousted for his frequent criticism of the Games as failing to serve the needs of ordinary Indians. "If at all this Commonwealth Games were delayed to any extent, it's Mani Shankar who is responsible," Mr Kalmadi said on Monday. "When he was sports minister for two years nothing moved, no stadium was built, nothing happened."

Mr Kalmadi's interpretation has few takers. "We keep coming back to the same point, which is that the Games were awarded in 2003 and none of the contracts were awarded until 2007," Mr Sharma said. "You cannot blame Aiyar - he was just a small part of the government. He did not have ultimate authority over anything. "The organising committee should have taken the lead in coordinating the work, but until last week, they just repeated that everything is fine. There was never any assessment on whether these deadlines could actually be met."

After the collapse of a footbridge outside the main Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium last week in which 27 workers were injured, experts said that bureaucracy and corruption are only part of the problem. "If you look at the pattern of problems they have had in the run-up to the Games, it is not just corruption, it is basic incompetence," said A G K Menon, an independent architectural planner based in New Delhi.

"When I have meetings with planners and architects, we use the Commonwealth Games as an illustration of how not to do things." foreign.desk@thenational.ae