The ‘Conmen Wealth’ Games

Did a country that doesn’t even have as many astroturf hockey pitches as an Amsterdam suburb really need to host the Commonwealth Games?

Was it worth spending close to $4billion on 12 days of competition in an event that’s as much of an anachronism as the British Empire?

And does the pathetic preparation highlighted by distasteful pictures in the international media present an accurate picture of the modern-day Indian state?

Over the past week, with falling ceilings and filthy toilets dominating the news, there has been an orgy of self-flagellation in the Indian media.

Every little failing and every little setback has been equated to national pride, and the inadequacies of a few have been projected on to a billion.

“In a way, the CWG preparations have been a model-scale version of India itself,” said The Hindustan Times. “Tales of success and ambition laid out on a rockbed of medieval infrastructure and the sheer inability to create a new one.”

Observers from afar have pointed the finger at India’s misplaced priorities.

Simon Jenkins, who has edited both The Times and the Evening Standard, had tongue firmly in cheek when he wrote: “How dare India disgrace the Commonwealth? How dare it inflict discomfort and filth on the grandees of international sport? Surely it should have spent billions more rupees, evicted millions more peasants and hired thousands more coolies and child labourers so the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) could enjoy a couple of weeks of rah-rah next month on the banks of the great, grey-green, greasy Yamuna river?”

The eviction of peasants and as many as 350,000 street hawkers is a touchy topic. The reality of present-day India is that Commonweath Games or not, such people will eventually be driven away.

The well-heeled don’t want such eyesores in their cities, and as the process of urban ‘beautification’ takes hold, more and more such reminders of India’s poverty will be pushed into the dark margins.

But are the teething troubles facing the Commonwealth Games an indictment of a nation as a whole? Indian software companies and infrastructure firms like Larsen & Toubro do business all over the world and have a reputation for excellence and reliability. The Tatas now own the famous Jaguar marque and even Tetley tea. Don’t tell them that they don’t know how to do business or complete projects on time.

The Commonwealth fiasco, dubbed Conmen Wealth by some with perceptive sense of humour, has little to do with modern-day India and everything to do with a breed of politicians and bureaucrats accountable to no one.

India won the bid for the games in 2003, beating out Canada, but construction on the various venues didn’t start until 2008. The Sports Authority of India, under the aegis of the sports ministry, was supposed to ensure that the main venues were completed by January so that the organising committee could then oversee the finishing touches.

That January deadline lapsed, as did one in March. When June came and went without work being finished, panic set in. The shoddy work that has been highlighted repeatedly over the past few days is merely a reminder that you can’t complete in seven months something that takes years to do properly.

And it’s not as though it’s those annoying and fussy foreigners alone that have kicked up a fuss. “It was very disappointing that our accommodation was not up to the mark after we completed a long and tiring journey,” said Akhil Kumar, one of India’s boxing medal hopes after his bed collapsed under him. “The athletes are at least entitled a decent place to rest. Even the toilets are not very clean.”

Presumably, Lalit Bhanot, secretary general of the organising committee, will now have words with Akhil over his unreasonable expectations. After all, this was the man who said: “The rooms of the Games village are clean according to you and me, but they [foreigners] have some other standard of cleanliness.”

Men like Bhanot and his boss, Suresh Kalmadi, now into a fourth term as president of the Indian Olympic Association, have ensured that Indian sport has seldom been anything more than a tawdry joke. Cricket’s relative success can be attributed to it being largely free of government interference, while hockey’s nosedive – the men didn’t even qualify for the last Olympics – tells you of the dangers of sport being run by incompetent men with the right connections.

If the games are a success, the same men who dragged it to the brink of disaster with their corrupt ways and lack of foresight will thump their chests and speak of India’s preparedness to host bigger events. Forget that most states in the union don’t even have a proper athletics track. Forget too that most government-run schools don’t even have patches of land big enough for a volleyball court, let alone anything bigger.

The games are little more than an exercise in vanity, for the benefit of those who don’t even care about sport. For the poor kid in a village who can’t even dream of spikes, it won’t make the slightest bit of difference. Had they invested $3 billion on those like him, we might have seen some results in two decades time. Instead, the various stadia will endure as monuments to the folly of those who could teach Nero a thing or two about self-delusion.