Commonwealth Costs and Casualties

As the Queen’s Baton jogs around the country, as athletes stretch and train, as October approaches, the media coverage and public criticism of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, to be held this year in New Delhi, has reached a fevered pitch. Every free news cycle seems to reveal new scandals damning India’s preparation for the games as too expensive, exploitive of workers, shoddily constructed and generally bad for the country. The disappointments have been trickling in since India first bid on the 2010 games in 2003, and now they form a torrent that threatens to drown out the genuine pride and excitement that many Indians feel at hosting such a prestigious event. However, little mention is made of the exposé that did the most to blow the lid off this whole chest of failures.

The 77 page report — pithily titled “Whose Wealth? Whose Commons?” — was compiled by the Housing and Land Rights Network [HLRN] of the South Asian region of the Habitat International Coalition and released in May 2010. Researched and written by Shalini Mishra, Shivani Chaudhry and Miloon Kothari, the report unravels the official claims about the Games to devastating effect, and it places the cost in the context of India’s larger struggles as a developing economy. It is a meticulously referenced piece of research, citing hundreds of sources from national and international press coverage of this and previous sports mega events to raw data obtained through Right To Information applications. And with the total financial and human cost finally laid out to plainly, one can’t help but ask: are these games worth all this?

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, for the HLRN report starts at the beginning, with the bidding process that won India the games in 2003. According to the report, “India’s decision to bid for the Commonwealth Games 2010 was neither transparent nor democratic.” The decision appears to have been made by the Indian Olympic Association [IOA] and top government officials without any public debate or discussion in Parliament, and then approved ex-post facto by the Cabinet in September 2003, after the bid process was well underway. In contrast, the bid by Hamilton, Canada — Delhi’s main competitor for the 2010 games — included documentation of an opinion poll showing that 87% of Hamilton residents supported hosting the Games. No such poll was performed here in India, and yet the IOA’s bid document still stated that “the entire nation supports the cause of the Games.”

When India won the games, the excitement was dulled by accusations that the IOA had, in desperation, bought the necessary votes with a US$7.2 million provision in its bid gifting US$100,000 to the Commonwealth Games Associations of each of the 72 member countries. Scandalous though such claims may be, let us skip to the chase, for US$7.2 million — or about Rs. 32 crore — is absolutely pocket change compared to the enormous financial costs of hosting the Games.

The initial projected cost of hosting the games came to Rs. 1899 crore. The HLRN report gives the government the benefit of the doubt and tracks all the different factors that may have increased the costs unexpectedly, but even with these considerations such an optimistic estimate looks patently absurd. Now, with the games almost here, the official government estimate is Rs. 10,000 crore, with independent experts claiming that the real cost of the games will in fact turn out to over Rs. 30,000 crore. And of course as the financial burden of the Games skyrocketed, the projected revenues the event would return did not scale accordingly and instead remained a highly ambitious Rs. 1780 crore.

Where does all this money go? A good chunk is being spent on free travel, luxury accommodation and tourist trips (a free visit to the famous Taj Mahal!) for all the CWG participants and organisers, which the IOA generously and unprecedentedly offered in its bid. More goes to “beautification” projects in select parts of Delhi, which include running beggars, vendors and other poor citizens off the streets — or else rounding them up and trying to ship them back to their supposed states of origin. Enormous sums are being spent on sports infrastructure: building new stadiums and renovating old, training facilities, the Games Village. Despite an initial proposed expenditure of Rs. 150 crore, the government has already reported spending Rs. 3390 crore just on the stadiums. The tragedy is that, if the 1982 Asian Games are any precedent, these stadiums are likely to remain mostly unused after the CWG have ended.

Money like this has to come from somewhere, and indeed we can see that many noble projects are now finding themselves strapped for cash. Funds for the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan were reallocated to help pay for the Commonwealth Games, just to give one example. In March the Government of Delhi announced that it had no money for new projects next fiscal year. Meanwhile rent, taxes and the cost of living for Delhi residents have all jumped significantly in the last several years.

With so much being spent on construction for such a high profile event, one would assume that the labourers would at least receive generous compensation for their efforts to help make India’s dreams of global prestige come true. Of course, such assumptions would be wrong. The HLRN report cites numerous sources that show that the tens of thousands of day labourers are being paid less than the legal minimum daily wage, and often after working for 12 hours or more a day to meet deadlines. They are given no time off, no travel allowance, no safety equipment, and are housed in completely inadequate living conditions. Child labour is being illegally used on CWG sites, and migrant workers from other states are being denied their legal protections. The families of workers who have died in construction accidents have not been compensated. And, of course, female labourers are being paid significantly less.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands more have been abused and displaced by the construction of CWG sites and the beautification efforts to make New Delhi a “world class city” in time for the Games. Countless urban poor have been evicted, legally or illegally, to make way for new infrastructure and CWG sites, and most of these people are resettled into poor, improper living conditions far away from city services. Mobile “courts” have been established to round up and “try” thousands of the city’s impoverished beggars, forcibly moving them to camps outside the city for at least the duration of the Games. And even as slums are being bulldozed to “beautify” the city, the influx of migrant workers drawn by the CWG construction and the displacement of people from their long established homes is, ironically, increasing the size of Delhi’s slums as a whole. Given the city’s similar experience with the 1982 Asian games, as well as the experiences of dozens of cities that have hosted sports mega events like the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics, none of this should be a surprise — but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

The NLRN report often points out that all of this, the decadence of the games and the exploitation that results, is happening in a country that is home to 40% of the world’s starving poor. Around half of India’s women and children are malnourished, with 5000 children dying of malnourishment every day. 37% of Indians live below the national poverty line. India’s sanitation is ranked as the second worst in the world, after China. On a variety of global development indicators, India always ranks in the bottom third. The report is filled with helpful and merciless “perspective” boxes that compare the huge cost of the CWG to, say, the paltry Rs. 60 lakhs spent every year to provide shelters for Delhi’s homeless, or the Rs. 100,000 crore needed to provide legitimate food security for all of India’s billion plus citizens.

So given the tremendous economic and human price of the Commonwealth Games, and all the pressing domestic problems that India has to deal with, the question that naturally springs to mind, and that the NLRN report asks over and over, is of course: why on earth does India want to host these silly games anyway? How could sports possibly be worth this much?

Obviously there is no satisfying answer. Because the Games will help India develop a genuine sports culture? The HLRN report cites authoritative international studies that prove that hosting mega sports events like the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics has historically done very little to generate a sustained increase in sports participation in a country. Because hosting the Games will transform Delhi into a world class city with impressive infrastructure? Unfortunately most of the infrastructure developed for the Games has been, according to the report, “hurried, expensive, poorly planned, environmentally unsound…and in violation of norms and planning processes.” Because the Games will increase India’s international prestige and standing in the global community? Sadly, the way the world’s economic and political elites measure things there might actually be a little something to that, but what media event can outweigh the shame of leaving hundreds of millions in crushing poverty?

Sadly, though the media can’t get enough of the scandals and disappointments surrounding the CWG, the big question — the “why” — isn’t getting all that much attention. Neither is, oddly enough, this explosive NLRN report. Many outlets have reported on the NLRN findings, but few have bothered to give credit where credit is due. In India’s sensationalistic journalism scene, too many reporters would much rather make it look like they like uncovered these shocking figures on their own.

NOW! wrote to the NLRN, asking how they felt about the media response to their efforts. Surprisingly, the staff was rather upbeat.

“Everyone wants to take credit and everyone wants exclusive stories! So yes, while journalists do use our report and findings and cite it as their own work, there are others who have cited our report. So we try and look at the positive side of the picture, as much as possible! Hopefully [our report] is having some impacts on the government and decision-making authorities of the country!”

If even those who research crushing poverty and labour exploitation for a living can stay optimistic, maybe there is hope. And now that India has shown itself willing to spend such huge sums on something as insignificant as a 12 day sports competition, perhaps a genie has been let out of its bottle. When the IOA went to London to bid on the Games, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reportedly gave them a “blank check” to win the bid, no matter the cost. When the games are over and the Queen’s Baton has moved on, perhaps we should demand the same “blank check” approach to India’s bigger problems of hunger, health, education and poverty. Those are the issues that deserve “blank check” treatment. Those issues are more than just fun and games.


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