India’s Games and its national reputation

Author: Mahendra Ved, New Delhi

India’s national reputation was on the precipice last week, earning the odium for its delayed and botched up preparations for the XIX Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, due to commence on October 3.

The crisis is ironic in that there was no political or economic emergency, nor a natural disaster, nor a military threat. At stake is the organisation of a major sports event with which prestige, credibility and profits are attached.

Things began to look up from September 23, with exactly ten days to go. The prolonged monsoon made way for the first dry day, allowing for an eleventh-hour rush as officials and players began to arrive.

While the stadiums and other sports facilities were ready on time, things went wrong in completing the interior facilities at the Commonwealth Games Village.

Many officials of the advance teams complained of unclean rooms and toilets, seepage and flooded walkways.

The collapse of a bridge to the main venue, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and part of a false ceiling at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium caused alarm and foreign officials threatened to pull out if the facilities were not in proper shape on time.

By the end of the week, things were falling into place. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the decision of athletes as to whether they should participate was ‘personal,’ and the Chef de Mission accepted when he reported an all-well back home and gave the same in writing to the Games’ organisers.

The Games are now due to start on time with participation likely to be almost complete from 71 contingents. The Commonwealth has 54 member-nations, but five teams come from Britain and three from Australia.

India bid for the prestigious event in 2003, but delayed commencing preparations for over two years because of differences in the government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2004.

This delay and the continuing turf war between the Organising Committee and various other government departments have cost India dearly in revenue from tourists and advertisers.

In July and August, the run-up to the Games witnessed a media campaign alleging graft and nepotism by the Organising Committee. The charges have not been tested in court. But the image of the Organising Committee and the government has suffered badly.

There is a widespread perception that besides graft, there has also been gross over-spending. Calculations by the Indian Express newspaper show that the amount spent then was Rs. 400 million (almost US$10 million). This has since been speculated at Rs 700 million.

Over 85 per cent of the money spent on infrastructure, although necessitated by the Games, has no direct connection with them. The second phase of the Metro, the rapid transport system, has cost US$391 million. The much-needed new power plants have cost a whopping US$2.6 billion.

The infrastructure of Delhi, part of which is being refurbished, and New Delhi, which will soon be a century old, is being improved for US$870 million.

The Ministry of Sports has spent large sums refurbishing the sports facilities built for the 1982 Asian Games. The Organising Committee is its ‘consumer,’ not the spender. The actual amount that the Organising Committee must account for is Rs 25 billion.

The media campaign is believed to be the consequence of uneven distribution of campaign and advertising revenue. The muck-raking caused negative perceptions; delays and poor management have confirmed that image.

It will take a long time for India to live this down. It undermines the confidence gained from nearly two decades of economic reforms and a resurgence to take up multi-billion dollar projects.

There is no matching expertise in management and infrastructure remains inadequate.  The Games are being organized by a group of officials working autonomously. There is neither government control, carrying a measure of experience and accountability, nor effective corporatisation. The Games’ preparations and management have, as it were, fallen short.

The government stepped in after graft charges were leveled. A committee of officials, headed by the Cabinet Secretary, India’s senior-most civil servant, is working under supervision by a team of ministers. Though not formally joining in, the army has deployed officers to ensure quick results.

Adding to the country’s woes are security threats from terrorist outfits, some domestic, but most of them from outside, that target India because of its fight against Al Qaeda.

A firing incident in the heart of New Delhi a fortnight before the Games saw governments of many participating nations issue security advisories, virtually asking the officials and sportspersons to withdraw from the Games.

Vocal protests, though legitimate, came from ‘white’ Commonwealth nations. Among star performers skipping the Games are Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and some British.

India has a good security set-up. But no amount of security can be considered sufficient against terrorism. Adequate measures have also been taken to counter water-borne diseases that plague India during the monsoon.

In its hosting of any future major events, India will have to ensure better management of money, health and security.

Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based writer with a column for ‘The New Straits Times,’ Malaysia.