Palpable relief now that the Games are over

By Rahul Bedi

For many New Delhi residents, and indeed the rest of India, the successful completion of the Commonwealth Games without any major calamity or security mishap was, in itself, a major accomplishment.

The palpable relief after the resplendent and glitch-free opening ceremony at the main Jawaharlal Nehru stadium on October 3 that lasted over the remaining 11 days of sporting events up to the equally dazzling closing celebrations, managed for the moment to draw a line under the disastrous run-up to the Games.

Forgotten momentarily were the shambolic construction delays, discomforting corruption scandals, the uninhabitable athletes' village, the collapse of a footbridge near the main stadium days before the Games opened and a suspected militant attack on two foreign tourists the weekend before the event.

Faced with an unavoidable nuisance and accepting the inevitability of traffic snarls, power breakdowns and interminable security drills, a large number of long-suffering Delhites put the negativity behind them and rallied to make the Games - billed as economically resurgent India's "coming out" party - work.

"This was no time for cynicism. That was reserved for before and after the Games," garment designer Ayeesha Ashraf said.

"During the Games, we needed to be positive to project an optimistic and efficient front," she added, having braved long tramps in the hot sun and serpentine queues at security barriers outside various sporting stadia to watch athletics, squash and badminton.

Others said the benchmark of expectancy from the Games was so low that arranging a glitch-free event in which no sports facility collapsed or safety was breached was "fantastical", a sign of India's collective good karma.

Many locals, however, were grateful for the new Games-related infrastructure like flyovers, the metro network and a slew of world-class stadia that emerged across Delhi but, expectedly, were sceptical over their upkeep and maintenance.

Even Shera, the Games' jaunty, cartoon tiger mascot, seemingly depressed earlier, appeared to become livelier as the Games progressed.

However, even these well wishers, largely well-heeled and privileged in addition to being sports enthusiasts, faced problems with tickets that were mysteriously sold out even though spectator stands at most sporting venues remained virtually empty half way through the Games.

A leading national daily even reported that sacks of tickets were being sold as raddi or paper garbage from one of the main ticketing outlets in downtown Delhi, a report that was not denied by the authorities.

The head of the organising committee, Suresh Kalmadi - blamed for the corruption, delays and shortcomings in the Games' preparations - insisted that interest in the sports was high in the first few days, but that spectators were still recovering from the late night blitz of the opening ceremony.

"Tomorrow onwards there won't be any problem," he added comically the day after the Games began, but ticketing snags persisted except for a handful of events such as the India-Pakistan hockey match and others where the host country was billed to win gold medals.

Spectator interest in the Games spiked in the second week after India started winning gold medals, ending with 38 and an overall tally of 101 medals. But for tens of thousands of Delhi's poor, beggars, homeless and daily wage labourers, the Games were a blight on their pitiful existences.

Those without identification papers - a minuscule number of Indians have them - were coerced by the police and officials into either leaving Delhi or staying home on threat of being arrested on a raft of nebulous Victorian-era charges such as vagrancy and loitering and imprisoned during the Games.

Roadside food and tea stalls and armies of hawkers who for years had zigzagged their way through cars parked haphazardly at traffic lights selling magazines, cellphone accessories, ballpoints, balloons and even elaborate sculptures too had disappeared overnight from the city without explanation. "I have been unemployed for the past month because of the Games and opted to return to my village in Uttar Pradesh province as there is a good chance I might be arrested even if I move around the city," Subhash Gupta, a daily wage painter and whitewasher, said.

Gupta also claimed that Indian Rail was openly conniving in this mass exodus from the city by ferrying millions of people across the country free of cost.

Miraculously, Delhi's more than 1.4 million homeless people too simply vanished, presenting the image of a prosperous city with no indigent underbelly to visitors from 71 Commonwealth nations for the Games' duration. "If I was poor I would abuse the Games," retired Major General Sheru Thapliyal said.

"I am not [poor] but I still find no merit in them and the chaotic and wasteful preparations that have gone into making them happen."

Delhi's slums that comprise about 30 per cent of the city had been secreted behind enormous hoardings announcing the Games' many disciplines or had simply been ringed by hastily planted bushes, most of which were already wilting.

Open sewers running alongside hastily constructed roads and facilities for the Games too had been similarly disguised, but little had been done about the fetid odour they emitted.

A posse of urban cowboys had managed to rid the city or at least parts associated with the Games of the hundreds of cows that routinely stand proprietarily on roads causing traffic chaos and, often, accidents.

Over the decades, there had been little effort to rid the city of them as many were owned by professional wrestlers whom few wanted to tangle with and because numerous neighbourhoods were content with the easy availability of cheap milk at their doorstep.

The capital's well-heeled, on the other hand, had opted to holiday abroad until the Games ended as all the city's educational institutions would, by official fiat, remain closed.

Severe traffic and security restrictions geared to smoothing the movement of Commonwealth athletes and officials ensured that attendance at most workplaces remained low during the sporting event making it the ideal opportunity for a holiday.

"The Games were meant to be a participatory event for the city, one to be enjoyed," university lecturer Neelkamal Puri said. Instead, they had ended up being antagonistic, restrictive and anything but fun, she fumed.

Room occupancy in city hotels hit an all-time low of 25 per cent - down from the 80 per cent normal for October that marks the beginning of the tourist season.

"For the hospitality industry in Delhi, October is peak season. But our business has faced a huge setback thanks to the Games," Manoj Singh, marketing manger of Orchid Hotel, a three-star hotel in the city centre said.

A cross section of hoteliers said negative publicity surrounding the Games, traffic chaos and security concerns had kept tourists away.

"The hotel industry was hoping to do roaring business during the Games but this period is turning out to be a disaster for us," S P Jain, of the Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations India, said.

Bed and breakfast lodgings, which multiplied across the city on the back of large investment in anticipation of a huge influx of guests, also suffered terribly as virtually no one turned up to use their facilities.

"We were looking forward to the Games for an influx of guests, but it has not happened. We are a bit disappointed," Pradeep Khemani, of Vandana's Bed and Breakfast in an up-market South Delhi neighbourhood, said.

But with Games organisers chuffed with their outcome and now readying to bid for the 2024 Olympics in Delhi, the city and India could be in for even harder times if they manage to succeed.

- NZ Herald

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