Delhi’s preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which are scheduled to begin Oct. 3, have not been going well. After countless delays and a particularly bad monsoon, this week has seen the collapse of a footbridge connecting the main stadium to its parking lot, a caved-in roof at the weightlifting venue and reports of unfinished buildings, human and animal excrement on beds and walls and a serious risk of dengue fever at the much-hyped Athletes’ Village.
Already, The Montreal Gazette has declared “India’s Games a Disaster.” “Yawning Gap Between Concept and Execution,” headlined The Times of India on Monday. Several high-profile athletes have also withdrawn from the competition, due to concerns about their accommodations, health and safety, including several competitors from the high-powered England, Wales, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Entire teams have yet to make their final decisions as to whether they will compete in India.
Nothing that has happened over the past few days was unpredictable, nor were these embarrassments unavoidable. But just as importantly, nor do they represent a failure of democracy.
I travelled to the city to cover the Commonwealth Games preparations as a reporter for The Yale Globalist in 2008, and even then most of the problems were already apparent. While in Delhi, I visited various construction sites and met with officials from the city government, the Commonwealth Games Federation, and Emaar MGF (the construction consortium responsible for the Athletes’ Village) as well journalists, activists, laborers and everyday citizens, who raised a wide range of concerns about the construction. What I saw was a startling disconnect between leaders’ perceptions and the reality on the ground, a disconnect that was hidden from public eye by the veil of secrecy under which Games planners operated. To say that this project was mismanaged would have been a tremendous understatement.
Tuesday’s bridge collapse is an obvious sign of the shoddy construction practices and unsafe labor standards which have plagued the project since the start. Two years ago, several groups of activists and even a dozen former security guards, whose job it had been to keep journalists and other onlookers far from the site, were camped out just outside the main entrance of the construction site for the Athlete’s Village, protesting what they claimed were unsafe labor practices. These issues have only recently been brought the world’s attention, sparking international outcry; however, to those following the preparations closely — as city officials should have been — this is old news. Vikas Kumar’s April 2008 piece in The Sunday Indian, titled “Games Village or Death Factory?” covered alleged accidents and elaborate cover-ups in gruesome detail, many of which I was able to personally confirm during interviews with workers at the site.
When I brought up such allegations to Delhi’s Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit, however, she denied any knowledge of them: “If something comes to our attention — you know, seriously — of course we will investigate.” When asked if the accusations of worker mistreatment qualified as a “serious” concern, she replied: “Yes, certainly … We would like labor conditions to be much better than they actually are. But how can you act if you don’t know what is wrong?”
If Dikshit was ignorant, William Ratazzi, the CEO of Emaar MGF, was not interested in filling her in. In response to allegations of dozens of deaths at the Games Village construction site, Ratazzi told me, “The way we treat our labor is the best in India. Nobody has died on our site, from disease or accidents, nothing.” During my time on the site’s perimeter, however, every laborer I spoke to — whether striking or not — told a very different story.
Transparency, it seems, was not a priority. When I visited the Athlete’s Village construction site, a man who claimed to be the site’s head of security denied me entrance because “top secret work [was] going on inside.” When pressed on what was “top secret” about athletes’ housing, he mumbled something about “other things” being built.
On top of all of these problems, the building was done on the Yamuna floodplain, which India’s scientific community seemed firmly opposed to. Delhi’s environmental ministries themselves had previously recommended against building on the floodplain, but they mysteriously changed their decision after Delhi was awarded the Games (so mysteriously that the Delhi High Court decided to investigate its legality). With this in mind, complaints about standing water, a high risk of dengue fever and even massive floods should come as no surprise — despite bad monsoons, environmental groups have been warning about flood risks on the Yamuna floodplain for seven years.
With disciplined management, proper oversight and perhaps even a fair degree of transparency, these embarrassments — from the bridge collapse to the paw prints and dog excrement on athletes’ beds — need not have occurred. Blame should rest in the hands of those who were clearly doing a poor job two years ago and seem unable to learn from their mistakes.
But commentators, already drawing comparisons to the 2008 Beijing Games, seem to be coming to all the wrong conclusions. Though Chinese autocracy was capable of doing what Indian democracy has failed to, it’s not that democracy failed in India but rather that Delhi’s government failed to take advantage of what should have been its biggest asset: an active, engaged civil society which, frankly, knew more about the Games preparations than city officials.
These failures will certainly lead to some soul-searching in India over the next few month, but it is important that the Indian people — and the world — understand the real cause of Delhi’s failures before deciding how to react.