Race to save Games amid the corruption

By Andrew Buncombe

At the Shivaji Stadium in the centre of Delhi, there appeared little reason to cheer.

Hundreds of workers wearing flip-flops and singlets, loincloths and saris laboured amid the mud to complete a Herculean task.

They rushed to finish laying marble for stands, build a series of five-storey blocks and repair collapsed scaffolding.

The stadium is set to be the practice venue for hockey matches in 43 days but this week it is fit for nothing.

Just six weeks before Delhi hosts the 19th Commonwealth Games, the city is in a state of chaos. Venues that should have been completed weeks ago remain dirty, mosquito-ridden worksites; major roads are blocked by construction work and projects to landscape the city appear to have been forgotten halfway through.

Even the Games' official theme, composed by A.R. Rahman, the man who wrote Jai Ho from the movie Slumdog Millionaire, is behind schedule.

Added to this is the growing sense of panic. Amid revelations of corruption, mismanagement and refusal to follow best practice is widespread concern that the event could turn into a national embarrassment. The city's chief minister said this week she is "nervous" about the outcome.

This week, the Commonwealth Games Federation, which oversees the event, put on a brave face. At a press conference after a two-day inspection of venues for the 17 sports represented, federation president Mike Fennell said that for "all practical purposes" the venues were completed. However, there was still "a long list of detailed work to be attended to".

He listed concerns about the readiness of the Games Village, transportation, catering, landscaping, cleaning, sanitation and hygiene. There were also worries that much of the electronic equipment required by the various disciplines were not yet in place.

However, he dismissed a claim by former Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser that the event would become "another Munich", a reference to the 1972 Olympics at which 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by Palestinian militants, and said he was satisfied with the security in place.

For many involved in Delhi's bid to host the event, bringing the Games to India had little to do with sport. Instead, it was an opportunity to demonstrate a nation keen to throw off the shackles of poverty and boast its economic growth rates of 8 per cent or more.

Falling after the 2008 Olympics, hosted by India's Asian rival, China, there was even more conviction that the event had to be a show-stopping success. Those who spoke out, such as former sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyar - who said he believed the money spent on the event should be used to develop sports in villages across the nation - were condemned.

The event has also suffered from a sporting perspective. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt pulled out long before his recent injury worries, the feeling being that the Games were an insufficient stage for the world's fastest man.

Heptathlete Jessica Ennis has also ended her season early. And Chris Hoy is among the many names from cycling who are choosing not to disrupt their preparations for November's European Championships, a qualifying event for the 2012 Olympics.

But if the Games fail, it will not be for lack of money.

The cost of the event was reported to have increased almost 18 times from its original budget.

The most recent prediction for the total cost of the two-week event stands at £4.22 billion ($9.3 billion). The 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester cost £300 million.

In Delhi, taxes have increased, money originally set aside to help the development of Dalit or "untouchable" groups has been diverted and slums have been bulldozed.

There are also reports that labour laws and health and safety regulations have been violated.

Moushumi Basu, of the People's Union for Democratic Rights, a civil rights group that has filed a series of court actions against the authorities, said workers had routinely been paid less than the legal minimum wage.

One worker, Bhakti Mandal, from West Bengal, labouring at the Shivaji Stadium, a venue the authorities have admitted will not be fully completed by October, said he was getting paid 3000 rupees ($92) a month to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. By law he should have been getting double that.

Aside from workers' conditions, some of the most worrying accusations relate to corruption, a daily feature of life in India.

Earlier this year, the Government's main watchdog identified 16 Games projects in which there appeared to be financial irregularities. Three senior officials have already been suspended.

In another blow, two state-run firms have withdrawn their sponsorship as a result of the "negative publicity" stemming from the alleged corruption and mismanagement.

With the negative press that the Games have attracted and the chaotic preparations, some have wondered whether the event could be called off. That is unlikely to happen.

A more likely scenario is that there will be a final frenzy of work that will be sufficient to pull together a decent event.

It might even prove to be a success, a view expressed by many people here, including 71-year-old Babu Lal Bharti, who was certain it would be completed on time, saying: "It will be good for India, it will be good for Indian pride."


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