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'We are like this only'

Soutik Biswas | 05:04 UK time, Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Work at a Commonwealth Games sporting venue in DelhiIn the early days of music television in India, one channel ran a zany Curry Western spoof. A rotund man in garish cowboy attire walks into a kitschy hick town bar, orders a whisky and a dosa, spews expletives and challenges a co-drinker to a fight after the unusual meal. As the spoof winds down, a punch line rolls up: 'We are like this only'.

I am reminded of the line when I read and hear about the mess over preparations for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi next year. Commonwealth officials are panicking over the slow pace of work and wondering aloud whether the games will take off. A smug Indian official in charge says there is nothing to worry about. All will be fine, he says, and the games will be among the finest ever. The subtext of his message: this is the Indian way of doing things, silly. The stadiums will be eventually built, and we will have a jolly good Games. We are like this only. And sab chalta hain (everything goes), another of our favourite alibis.

But this time the bluff may be called sooner. There is little doubt that India has approached its first major international sports event in nearly three decades with characteristic lack of planning. A report by the federal government's own auditing arm says work on 13 of the 19 sports venues is behind schedule. There aren't enough hotel rooms yet to house guests - another government estimate reckon that only 35% of the additional hotel rooms planned for the games will be completed in time. Commonwealth Games Federation chief Mike Fennell is skittish: he wants to meet the PM now for an assurance that the games will held in time. In an internal note, the Commonwealth Games Association of Canada says in desperation: "Verbal assurances [from Indian officials] are no longer sufficient." A telling comment comes from a foreign engineer who is working at an unfinished stadium site. "The people over here are very careless and the mentality is very lazy," he says. "If one person works, the other five want to just stand around him and watch. They all waste time."

Wasting time and procrastination is a national pastime, so why blame India's poor, underpaid and overworked construction workers. The games are being planned by an organising committee along with two dozen committees - whose heads apparently hardly meet - stacked with bureaucrats, politicians, sports administrators, who are often politicians themselves, and so on. One person I know who was a member of the organising committee quit after he found out to his dismay that nothing was moving on his front in the year he was there. In one meeting called to shortlist some contractors for a job, he found a bureaucrat on the selection committee who had joined it a day before from some nondescript ministry. Friends who have been involved with international sporting events tell me it is not so much about completing work on the stadiums, but of ensuring that the "operationals" are in place - hotel room bookings for athletes, the state of preparedness for the media, transport hubs to take the media and guests to the stadia and back and stuff like that.Workers at a Commonwealth Games site in Delhi

Nothing much has moved along on these fronts, they say. The games village is being built on a controversial environmentally sensitive site - the banks of a dying river which skirts the capital. The less said about the infrastructure, the better. The games, according to its website, will leave behind "a city much more beautiful and charming than it currently is". It talks about how a colonial city centre has been "given a new façade and is experiencing a resurgence", and how the city's monuments are being "cleaned and revitalised".

I don't know how much truth there is in these claims. But I do know that if it rains during the event, Delhi's roads will overflow with water and sewage or cave in. If there is a gale, electricity lines will snap, trees will fall and block the roads, and roofs will fly. The organisers must have been delusional to award the games to a city with such utterly shambolic infrastructure. Also, since there will be no separate lanes for the venues-bound traffic, I see huge gridlocks, and traffic being stopped to let the games traffic pass. Slums are expected to fenced off with bamboo, and beggars are to be rounded up. The 12-day, 17-discipline sporting event is all set to become the biggest nightmare for Delhi's denizens.

It also could turn out be India's biggest shame. Already workers have died at the construction sites, and human rights groups are up in arms about how workers at venues are being underpaid and have flimsy security. I spotted a picture where women workers wore tatty rubber sandals at a site where the signage indicates they should be wearing boots. It's the same old story - apart from a few shining exceptions like the Delhi Metro- of brazen disregard for basic safety norms, woeful planning and exploitative contractors.

And we have revulsion for real change. We remember how an indoor stadium roof leaked in the monsoon rains and players quit wet tables when the world table tennis championship opened in Calcutta decades ago. We remember how we sat on drying paint at an upgraded cricket stadium and endured its stinking, overflowing rest rooms to watch an international game. We see our politicians taking over sports organisations and do to sport what they have done to politics in the country. We laugh it all away every time. We are like this only. Sab chalta hain. Why do we have no shame?


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