A Time of Shame
This Commonwealth Games debacle wounds the pride of India
The fiasco that has surrounded the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, with ceilings and bridges collapsing, athletes threatening to stay away and child labourers desperately struggling to install spectator seating, has not been pretty. Nor have the shots of the interior of the athletes’ village, with wires from open junction boxes dangling next to mosquito-ridden pools of stagnant water, and lavatories that have been well-used but not plumbed in.
Games officials and foreign athletes are furious – but so are the Indians themselves. The Times of India carried a poll in which 97 per cent of respondents said that they felt their country’s reputation had been damaged by the shambles. None the less, as an embarrassed government makes frantic efforts to complete the work, the building-site jokes are already making the rounds. One wag advised: “When walking near venues or watching the Games in the stadium, kindly wear a helmet at all times.” More worryingly, another Times of India reader claimed that a cousin had been working as a civil engineer on one of the Games’ buildings. When they had completed the first floor, the inspecting official reportedly requested a Mercedes in exchange for signing it off: the contractor allegedly agreed, but subtracted the cost of the car from the budget for the remaining floors.
I am married to a man of Indian origin, whose parents came to Britain from New Delhi, and have visited the city a number of times. Despite the marvels that it has to offer any traveller, the lack of readiness for the Games did not come as a total surprise. For a start, Indian construction workers have an unusually carefree attitude to electricity: as a first-time visitor, I was mightily struck by the great, snaking tangle of power cables that hangs in swags across streets in the Old Town. What was even more astonishing was that it appeared to work.
On a larger scale, and by similarly unorthodox methods, India works, too: as a country, it is a functioning mixture of the maddening and the miraculous. But it just doesn’t work to a deadline. And health and safety, almost a religion in the West, often appears of negligible importance.
My husband and I were driven, by a local driver of merciful competence, up the narrow, winding roads of the Kullu Valley in Himachel Pradesh. The steep drops at the roadside were dotted with the crumpled wrecks of trucks that had plunged off the edge. We turned a corner, and there, on a hairpin bend atop a 100ft drop, were two smiling teenage boys enjoying a leisurely game of cricket.
When we stayed the night in a little guesthouse, the temperature dropped to freezing. We asked for a heater, which came with two unprotected, dangling wires, which the owner cheerily rammed directly into holes in the wall. After the crackling that ensued, I decided I’d rather freeze to death than burn.
The Indian people have enormous reserves of stamina, resilience, intelligence and drive, qualities which are setting their nation on the route to becoming an economic superpower. What they do not have is a government which makes rules consistently and enforces them swiftly and fairly. The result is that the rich – who have the money to pay handsome bribes and to employ the best lawyers – prosper further, while the poor often remain unprotected.
Campaigning journalism – as practised by Tehelka, a wonderful weekly magazine – is increasingly holding politicians, officials and police chiefs to account. Sadly, while the parlous state of the privies in the athletes’ village makes international headlines, the fate of the 100 workers killed since 1998 in the construction of the New Delhi Metro does not.
A spotlight has been turned on the worst of India in the run-up to these Games: the chaos, the child labour, the corruption. But the athletes who take part will also discover the best of it: new friends will be made, ingenious solutions proffered, fresh accommodation found. As I said, India always works. But its government should take a sharp lesson from the anger of its own people, who yearn to take an unqualified pride in their nation: an emergent superpower should work a hell of a lot better than this.
From The Daily Telegraph