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Our commitment to the Commonwealth

Delhi appears disastrously unprepared for the Games....

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
August 31, 2009 12:49:26 am

It is an image few forget: an opening day ceremony with Rajasthani dancers: turbaned men and choli-clad women,painted faces from Kerala,Vedic chanting as diyas float on an artificial lake. An old culture,captivating the new ones from Australia,Canada,and South Africa.

Yet when the games begin another India takes over. At the Games Village the shower issues puffs of air; the stadium entrance lies unpaved; during the evening high diving event the lights short circuit; the diver peers down into the darkness hoping there is water in the pool. Meanwhile athletes move about the city,caught in traffic jams,victims — like its citizens — of mismanagement,incompetence,and a civic apathy they have learned to recognise as truly Indian.

From the very outset the Commonwealth Games project was mired in risk and controversy. Unable to locate suitable land,buildings were sited in far flung areas of the city,sometimes on the flood-prone Yamuna,some within heritage zones. Naturally,connections between facilities so spread out needed due consideration. An 800-crore tunnel link between the games village and Nehru Stadium was proposed under Humayun’s Tomb; it was rejected by the Archaeological Survey of India. Then a raised highway link was suggested along other monuments in Nizamuddin. Its alignment was duly struck down by the Delhi Urban Arts Commission. In the last few years the congested city,teeming with history,has been under siege by the CPWD,the Metro and the other agencies on the Commonwealth bandwagon. Flyovers,metro stations,new roads,tunnels,underpasses and bus lanes,the daily torment to its residents has raised a larger question about the city’s long-term legacy. Who are the real beneficiaries of these continual interventions? Those who need the upgrade of living standards? Or those who need the convenience

of a flyover?

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Despite the appalling physical conditions within it— its lack of services,sidewalks,tree cover or public life — many have summoned the will to save Delhi from further ruin. Environmental groups raised doubts about the proposals and the dubious intentions of its agents. Public protests were staged against the cutting of trees; PILs were filed against roads endangering forests; reports on riverbed ecology and flood planning were issued. The idea was not to convert the city into a two-week sporting event,but to save Delhi for its permanent residents.

At the time the Commonwealth Games were awarded to Delhi,the 2010 World Cup of Football went to Johannesburg. If ever there was a parallel between places,it was between the two cities. Lacking infrastructure,set in an urban sprawl,high crime,a racist town plan filled with elitist malls and unsightly tenements,a description of the South African city could well describe India’s capital. Yet in the four years that Johannesburg has set about readying itself for 2010,it has enacted monumental changes: the parks departments’ plantation drive has greened the entire town,even creating plantations on wasteland. New roads,parks and housing have replaced many of Soweto’s tin shacks. In an effort to correct the inequality of its housing divisions,businesses and restaurants have sprouted in the inner city. The ten-billion dollar upgrade may have originally been granted for a two week sporting event,but its effect is being felt much beyond the playing field.

By comparison,Delhi’s preparations border on the lackadaisical and the absurd. A recent survey categorically placed 13 of the 19 sports venues under construction to be seriously mismanaged and flawed. Incomplete plans and construction delays have put not just the building quality in doubt,but also risk projects being finished on time. With more than 40 per cent of the work remaining in some of the key training venues — athletics,swimming,weightlifting,tennis — and most already over-budget,the government has long since given up hope of earning revenues from the games.

Then why host the games at all? India would doubtless be a commendable host to the world conference on religions,but how does a country with no sporting ability,no genuine feel for sport and few training facilities host an event of international dimensions? Would Sweden host the world Kabbadi Championships? Doesn’t the host have an obligation to actively participate?

Such trivial philosophical questions are of little concern to a government transfixed by fears of losing the games altogether. Given the current state of delays,the panic that the games may be moved out of Delhi to a more seasoned host is now well and truly justified. In the corridors of power,where large-scale construction projects are squalid with graft,this would be the ultimate national humiliation. Doubtless there would be questions in Parliament. But with bids for the 2024 Olympic city starting up,they too would be quickly forgotten.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect

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