Preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games have turned Delhi into a swirl of mud, scaffolding and scandal.
Government officials connected to the games appear confident that Delhi’s upturned streets and impassable traffic jams will soon turn into something spectacular.
On the horizon is the transformation of India’s congested national capital into a “world class city”, worthy not only of hosting this high-prestige sporting event, but also of India’s growing reputation as the next Asian superpower.
This hubris-laden dream is a familiar one. Countries compete fiercely to host global mega-events such as the Olympics, expos and the Commonwealth Games. Australia, which will send 425 athletes to Delhi, recently launched a bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Sydney.
These “urban spectacles” are used to enhance a country and city’s global recognition, image and status, and to push through controversial policy reforms that might otherwise be delayed for years. It is easier to undercut local opposition under the pressure of a fixed deadline and the international spotlight.
However, the reforms involved in “re-branding” a city amount to a giant subsidy to tourists and globally connected urban elites at the expense of local collective consumption by the poor.
The games in Delhi are a case in point, and are being used to invigorate an elite-driven program of urban change that will endure well beyond the 12 days of sporting competition.
Among the changes specific to the games is the renovation of existing sports venues — Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, revamped by a German engineering firm, now resembles a mammoth spacecraft — and the construction of a “Games Village” along the river Yamuna, which the Indian Olympic Association president says will be “the best Games village in the world, perhaps better than the Olympic village at Beijing”.
Other “world class” items for the event include new arenas for tennis, wrestling and “big bore” shooting.
Following the event, many will become profit-making ventures managed by private companies, thus limiting their use to the general public.
Apartments at the Games Village will be sold to private buyers: a decision that provoked considerable public outrage when Delhi State government officials demanded them at discounted rates.
Though hard to believe at the moment, given Delhi’s rubble-strewn streets, a much grander program of “urban regeneration” is in the works.
The city is slated for a magnificent makeover; one that will transform it into a “classy metropolis”. It will get wider roads, higher bridges, clover-leaf flyovers, bus corridors, and an expanded subway network. A flashy new airport terminal, cited as the eighth-largest in the world, has already sprung up on the outskirts of the city.
With the population of the city expected to swell to 23 million by 2021, such infrastructure projects may seem reasonable. This would be especially the case if the allocated funds go where they should, but new corruption scandals surface with each passing day.
Even if corruption were (miraculously) not a factor, the renovations underway would probably fall short of serving the larger public interest.
Delhi Metro has been criticised for catering to the middle classes rather than the masses, and the new, brilliantly lit Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi International Airport looms over a dusty, slum-peppered landscape like a quintessential monument to vanity.
The Games Village — a dense cluster of high-rise buildings — was protested on the grounds that the allocated land is ecologically fragile and that construction would lead to the eviction of hundreds of vulnerable families. The Supreme Court overruled such objections, despite rhetoric about Delhi’s “Green Games”.
In fact, Delhi’s priorities are laid bare by other aspects of “beautification”, such as bamboo screens to hide slums, and landscaping projects for the posh, leafy residential neighborhoods that surround the main sites of the games.
Delhi’s planned renovation will widen spatial inequalities within the city and worsen the already unbalanced regional development in India.
Large cities like Delhi and Mumbai tend to pull away scarce resources and investment from other regions. This is the agenda of an affluent minority that is relatively detached from local conditions and the local population.
The militarisation of Delhi is also cause for concern. The home ministry, ministry of sports and the Delhi police have also developed a security agenda that will leave a lasting imprint on the city.
The “basics” include a 14-foot fence around the main stadium, along with helicopter surveillance, armed guards and snipers to protect athletes and their families.
Before the games, 58 important markets and 27 border checkpoints across Delhi will be secured with CCTV cameras; an automated fingerprint and palm identification system will be installed at 135 police stations, and a high-tech “intelligent traffic management system” will be installed in core areas of the city.
Delhi police are also acquiring three armored vehicles, another first for the country.
Finally, some “behavioral changes” are expected. The Indian home minister has instructed Delhiites to adopt manners that befit residents of “an international city”. Their gratitude will no doubt be demanded as they are scanned, probed and frisked to keep the usual assortment of “terrorists” at bay.
The cost of this massive transformation is staggering. The budget for the games has ballooned from an initial outlay of INR 18,990 million (US$440 million) in 2003 to an official figure of INR 110 billion ($2.5 billion).
This estimate excludes the price of non-sports-related infrastructure development (such as the extension of Delhi Metro), which will be borne by the Delhi government.
Unofficial estimates are much higher. According to a report by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) the total expenditure on infrastructure, beautification projects and security is unknown, but is likely to be in the “hundreds of thousands of [millions]”.
The report suggests that the games are “likely to create a negative financial legacy for the nation, the effects of which are already visible in the form of higher cost of living and taxes for Delhi residents,” and says such spending is “hard to justify in a country that has glaringly high levels of poverty, hunger, inequality, homelessness and malnutrition”.
It concludes that “from the time of the bid to the continuous colossal escalation in the total budget [the event] has been characterized by a lack of public participation, transparency and government accountability”.
The HLRN has also brought to light some of the worrying social and environmental consequences of the event. The HLRN study has uncovered a deluge of disturbing information.
Delhi has announced “no tolerance zones” for “beggars” and is arbitrarily detaining homeless citizens under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959, an archaic law imported to Delhi in 1960.
Funds reserved for helping marginalised communities were diverted to cover expenses related to the games. Over 100,000 families have already been evicted in order to make space for games-related projects, and a further 30,000 to 40,000 are on the cusp of “relocation”, a euphemism for shunting the poor to the remote parts of the city, where they face grueling commutes to work and disrupted schooling for their children.
The Peoples’ Union for Democratic Rights and the Commonwealth Games Citizens for Workers, Women and Children have also drawn attention to the use of child labour and many other barefaced labour violations.
As a consequence of the construction boom sparked by the games, one million migrant workers have poured into Delhi from neighbouring areas in Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, which are among the poorest in the country, if not the world.
Most work without documentation — usually for much less than Delhi’s minimum wage of INR 152 ($3) a day — and live in squalid, makeshift roadside camps that lack even the most basic amenities. Eighteen on-site injuries and 42 deaths have been officially reported in games related construction.
The arrogant misallocation of resources, labour violations and privatisation and securitisation of public space associated with the games are not unique in Delhi’s recent history.
Since the early 1990s, India has embarked on a program of radical economic liberalisation. Middle class “citizens groups”, drawn mainly from India’s new managerial and technocratic classes, have launched aggressive campaigns to “cleanse” cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata of “encroachers” and “polluters”.
Slum-dwellers, street vendors and rickshaw pullers have been targeted, and urban space has become divided by fences, barbed wire and shards of broken glass. Gated communities, segregated enclaves and even private townships appear to be the way of the future.
City officials and the judiciary support the demand for a safe and pristine bourgeois utopia — often framed in the language of a “public need” for sanitation, security and environmental protection.
The “beautification” of freshly “cleaned-up” promenades, parks, beaches and waterfronts was supported by the corporate sector, with private security firms awarded contracts to monitor freshly “cleaned up” public spaces.
The city, as Christiane Brosius suggests in a perceptive book on India’s “new middle class”, is increasingly “following the patterns of a multinational corporation”.
The games will strengthen a model of inequitable urban change that is well underway in Delhi and other Indian cities; a program driven by the rather fascist vision of an affluent minority who would rather not be reminded that 77% of India’s population live on less than INR 20 (50 cents) a day, and that more than half the country is engulfed by deadly insurgency.
The lure of national prestige, an immovable deadline, and increasingly, the fear of national humiliation, have weakened the independent activists and urban social movements that usually resist this agenda.