India’s Commonwealth Own Goal

New Delhi drops the ball in developing facilities for one of the world's biggest sporting events

With the Commonwealth Games to open
in New Delhi hardly more than a year from now, a damning report by an
Indian parliamentary committee has raised serious questions about
India's level of preparedness for the event.

The report, which criticizes the
Delhi government in no ambiguous terms, highlights the danger that many
projects won't be ready on time. Work on 13 of the 19 sports venues is
behind schedule with the aquatics complex and the hockey stadium in the
worst shape. Most disquieting is that the design for the Jawaharlal
Nehru Stadium - the main venue for the games – isn't even finalized
yet. Only about a tenth of the hotel rooms for tourists are available
as of now.

And, to borrow Lance Armstrong's
phrase, it isn't just about the bike, or any other sporting event. The
games are one of the world's biggest multi-sport affairs after the
Olympic Games. Held every four years, the Commonwealth Games draw as
many as 5,000 athletes from 53 former member countries of the British
Empire. They give New Delhi the chance to polish its global image in
much the same way the 2008 Olympics centered China firmly on the world
stage. Indeed, the Chinese government leveraged the opportunity to
invest $40 billion to develop Beijing in dramatic fashion, wiping out
vast tracts of the city and putting in place world-class infrastructure
and dazzling facilities. Similarly, England is using the opportunity
provided by the 2012 Olympics to give London a makeover.

New Delhi, however, is running around
at the last hour seeking to put things in place. The pressure is
showing -- half-baked flyovers and metro rail construction in New Delhi
are collapsing in parts, causing accidents and endangering lives.
Rather than using this opportunity to shore up New Delhi's dilapidated
infrastructure, money is being squandered on ill-executed projects.

With 16 major infrastructure projects
for the city running behind schedule, including flyovers and road
tunnels, the forecast is ominous. Infrastructure shortcomings listed in
the report range from below-par airport facilities, accommodations and
roads to security, stadiums and power supply.

One of the major developments running
behind schedule is the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Aquatic Complex.
According to the plan, 93 percent of the work was to be completed three
months ago but so far only 40 percent has been finished. Training
venues for athletics, swimming, weightlifting and wrestling at the
Games Village are lagging behind with over 40 percent of the work yet
to be completed. Other key projects running behind include the Shivaji
Stadium for hockey, the Ludlow Castle Hall for wrestling, the Jamia
Milia Islamia University which is the venue for rugby and table tennis
and Talkatora Stadium, the boxing venue. At all these venues, the work
shortfall is as high as 50 percent.

The parliamentary report, which lays
the blame for the delay at the door of the organizing committee and the
sports ministry, has also objected to the manner in which the
government has been revising its own deadlines. For instance, in the
SPM Aquatics Complex case, the planned project progress as per set
target was supposed to be 93 percent as of May 2009. Now, it has been
revised to 36 percent. There are many such revisions in the schedule.

Even the International Swimming
Federation has criticized the Indian organizers for the poor swimming
facilities it is offering. Apart from criticism, budget overruns and a
resultant funds crunch among private developers due to a bruising
meltdown have only compounded the confusion.

As a result the cracks are showing.
Trial competitions for the games have been pushed to August 2010, just
two months before the start of the event as the infrastructure still
remains to be put in place. Asked why the events are being held just
two months before the games themselves, organizing committee
vice-chairman Randhir Singh quipped that "If we had held them a year
back, then after the events, the stadiums would have been left unused
and wouldn't have been fit for the main event."

However, despite less than perfect
preparations for the event, India's sports minister, Manohar Singh
Gill, remains upbeat. "All human efforts are being put in to deliver
the sporting facilities well before the time," he told journalists
recently. He even compared the Games to "a lavish Indian wedding"
characterized by haphazard preparations that will ultimately come

Gill's optimism fails to mask New
Delhi's lackadaisical approach to the event. The games, in which 71
teams will participate from the 53 nations, will cost the Indian
exchequer US$ 1.6 billion, making this the most expensive games ever.
Manchester 2002 cost US$420 million while Melbourne 2006 was billed at US$1.1 billion.

The tourism sector also has high
stakes. The event is intended as a catalyst to boost tourism to Delhi,
which expects 2 two million foreign tourists and 3.5 million domestic
tourists for the event. To cope with this influx, the government has
pulled out all stops to provide tax incentives for hotel rooms while
extending a five-year tax rebate to the tourism industry to create jobs
and increase development.

But despite this, the immediate
problem of a room shortfall for incoming tourists is proving to be a
big headache. According to industry estimates, Delhi has only 4,756
rooms available against a requirement of 40,000 required for the event.
Per the latest review, 13 five-star hotels have confirmed they will
offer 2,270 rooms, six four-star hotels will chip in with another 485
while three-stars will contribute 2,000.

In spite of this, the government is
still scrambling for additional rooms. To plug the shortfall, last year
it launched the 'Incredible India Bed and Breakfast Scheme' to add an
estimated 20,000-25,000 rooms. The scheme invited Delhi-based families
to convert their homes into bed-and-breakfast establishments which
could charge about US$35 a night. However, the plan met with a lukewarm
response due to poor marketing.

Not that Delhi isn't capable of
executing world class events. The 1982 Asian Games were a classic
example of a global sporting event that wrought an impressive makeover
for the city. The event put in place a seamless network of flyovers,
roads, hotels and infrastructure befitting a world class city.

But that's history. Today, India has
to realize that with changing world order dynamics, international
sports events transcend being mere sports events. They carry a strong
geopolitical message to help countries build up a groundswell of soft
power. Riding on its much-vaunted demographic dividend and economic
heft, India can use this opportunity wisely. More so because the stakes
are higher his time for it as it competes with other Asian nations for
a higher rank in the world pecking order.

But blame it on India's notoriously
apathetic bureaucracy or the country's characteristically breezy
attitude towards sports, there seems to be no urgency on display in New
Delhi to meet the global event's deadline. If the city doesn't buck up
– and fast – this is one wedding whose bells may only clunk.

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