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God Save The Games!

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This column is usually about aviation, but this time with my editor's permission I have decided to digress. In the past few days, all hell has broken loose on the much-awaited Commonwealth Games (CWG) to be held in Delhi from 3 October. On 21 September, days before the opening ceremony of the Games, the footbridge at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, which is meant to carry spectators from the stadium to the car park, collapsed, injuring 23 people. It wasn't the torrential rain that brought it down, but poor quality of construction. A case has been booked against the contractor who has been blacklisted.

This happened hours after Mike Fennell, the Games chief, embarrassed India by calling the Games village ‘filthy'. His views were underscored by various inspecting countries who found paan stains, dirty toilets and stray dogs jumping on beds meant for athletes. The village, they said, is "uninhabitable". The New Zealand Prime Minister stuck his neck out and said it would be "pointless to send athletes to Delhi if they face health issues".

CWG organising committee general secretary Lalit Bhanot took umbrage at these comments and insisted that "they had done a great job", without specifying what exactly he was referring to. That he seemed at a loss for words due to Fennell's comments was evident in his answers at a press conference where he was finding it difficult to build straight sentences in English (leave alone the Games village!). He said: "They are saying…it is not the clean (sic)" and that "they have certain standard of hygiene which is not the my standard of hygiene". He added he has "upgraded our people" and that the problem would be resolved well in time for the Games.

The two events struck the final nail in the coffin of the Games that have been jinxed from the start. Even as this column was being written, the false ceiling at the weightlifting arena collapsed — had this happened during the Games the weightlifters would have truly been tested. To start with, the cost of the Games have escalated way beyond expectations —what was expected to cost Rs 1,899 crore in 2003 will now cost the exchequer Rs 10,000 crore (official figures).

What has been built seems sub-standard. People may have been willing to forgive the poor quality of construction if the deadlines are met. But as months went by, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit's "vows" for preparedness and Bhanot's claims that 90 per cent of the construction would be done by October 2009 were taken with a tonne of salt.

The public has barely batted an eyelid as far as the endless allegations of huge corruption right up to the highest level (Suresh Kalmadi and Co.) go. Corruption is part and parcel of the Indian ethos. Nobody expected a mega event of this size to go by untainted.

The Games village site has, at one stage, faced the threat of floods as the Yamuna reached dangerously high levels. With the filthy waters of the Yamuna all around the site, the threat of dengue and the mosquitoes that spread it remains quite real even today.

Then, there is the total failure of the events to attract tourists. Not only are hotel rooms going abegging, bed and breakfasts set up across the city (as far as Pitampura in west Delhi) have no bookings to report. God knows what the authorities were thinking of when they set up tents for visitors to stay in near the Gurgaon toll plaza on NH8 — about 40 km away from most Games venues.

Forget attracting foreigners for the event, sales of tickets indicate that attracting even the locals to the Games is quite a challenge. Almost empty stadiums remain another real threat to the Games, barring the opening ceremony where Bollywood-obsessed Indians may be drawn as the star of the show is expected to be Shah Rukh Khan. One reason for the failure to generate any hype around the Games is the fact that merchandise promoting the Games went on sale only this month (usually begins a year prior to the actual event). Even the theme song composed by A.R. Rehman has sunk without a trace.

It is clear the stars are not shining on Kalmadi. At the rate things are going, athletes who do make it may have little to compete with. Many star athletes, including Australia's world discus-throw champion Dani Samuels, have already backed out citing one reason or the other. (If the Indian television channels continue to whip up hysteria at the rate they are, the Games themselves could collapse!) Kalmadi, however, has reassured the public that if one set of stars stays away, a new set will be born at the Games.

If, despite all these, the Games does go smoothly, it will be nothing short of a miracle. If I were Kalmadi, I would forget the Games and instead organise a havan.

anjulibhargava at gmail dot com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 04-10-2010)