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Mainstream, Vol. XLVIII, No 33, August 7, 2010

Commonwealth Games: The Pettiness of Eminence

Monday 9 August 2010, by Mani Shankar Aiyar


(The following piece appeared in Crest sometime ago. Thereafter it was published in The Other Side and other publications. In view of the latest controversy surrounding the Commonwealth Games and the significance of the contents of the former Union Sports Minister’s article we are reproducing it with the author’s consent and due acknowledgement. —Editor)

Holding the 10-day, Rs 20,000 crore-jamboree reflects a misplaced sense of pride and distortion of national priorities. If not on development of a chronically poor nation, the money could have been well spent on bringing basic sports to every mohalla and panchayat.

Justice A.P. Shah, the best judge the Supreme Court never had, released a few days ago a sober, deeply researched, fact-based indictment of the Commonwealth Games by the Housing and Land Rights Network—devastating precisely because it is so understated. The report has been met with thundering silence by the same media that is driving itself ballistic over the Bhopal gas tragedy verdict although the Rs 20,000 plus crore being spent on the Commonwealth Games extravaganza would have been more than adequate to compensate the victims of Bhopal beyond their wildest dreams.

My fundamental objection to the Games is the distortion it has introduced in national priorities and our sense of social justice, that privileges a “spectacular Games”, as the Prime Minister has assured the nation, over a spectacular reduction in child malnutrition—running at 47 per cent of children under five. Is it fair that thousands of the poorest families entering the national Capital—migrant workers fleeing desperate poverty in the rural hinterland—should suffer their shanty town on the right bank of the Yamuna being destroyed overnight in the environmental interests of protecting the unimpeded flow of the sewer we call Delhi’s principal river while promoting the Akshardham temple and now the Commonwealth Games Village on the left bank of the same river, ironically almost exactly opposite the demolished slum of Yamuna Pushta? In Gandhi’s India, does anything go in the name of God and Mammon?

And why, in the name of that same God and Mammon, the Commonwealth Games for the most prosperous part of the most prosperous city in India—the posh heart of New Delhi? The Commonwealth Games in Manchester were leveraged to rejuvenate the utterly rundown eastern section of the city where every family had undergone unemployment for at least a generation and some for two or three. Now, Walmart has its largest global store, employing 18,000 boys and girls, and Microsoft its European head-quarters, in East Manchester thanks to the fillip given by the Games. Consequently, the 2012 Olympic Games are designed for the “spectacular development” of the 10 most underdeveloped counties of the Lea Valley on the far fringes of London.

Why then was the spectacular development of Bawana on the poverty-ridden edges of the Capital not picked up, as originally proposed, for our Commonwealth Games? Indeed, why not the Games in Dantewada—which could well do with a Rs 20,000 crore-bonanza to cock a snook at the Maoists? Only because the partyhopping glitterati of the Organising Committee would not know poverty from plum pudding. They rate the Games as a party for themselves and their ilk—not the dirty, filthy, evilsmelling aam admi of the real Bharat.

Let me enter a declaration of interest. As an officer of the Indian Foreign Service, I paid Rs 3 lakhs for a flat in the Mayur Vihar complex. The Commonwealth Metro has increased its market value to over a crore while smashing to smithereens over 40 slum colonies, several in the immediate vicinity of Mayur Vihar, and driving the most wretched of the wretched—our beggars—off the streets so that no foreign visitor to the Games goes away with the “wrong” impression that 836 million Indians live on under Rs 20 a day, and 239 million of them on less than even a tenner. (Reference: the Arjun Sengupta Committee report) Whom are we trying to kid: the videshi mleccha or ourselves?

And what kind of an impression of our degradation will that same foreign visitor, whose delicate eyes have been shielded from the gross reality of our poverty, carry when he finds himself solicited at every Games corner by escort agency pimps offering desi maal at cut rates?

THIS national shame began when the Indian Olympics Committee hoodwinked Atal Bihari Vajpayee in May 2003 into authorising an Indian bid on the solemn assurance that the Organising Committee would require no more than a ”loan” of Rs 150 crores of public money—all of which would be reimbursed to the exchequer from ticket sale proceeds, sponsorships and advertisements. In the event, for the opening and closing ceremonies alone, the sanction has soared to nearly Rs 400 crores, and the total advance to upward of Rs 1600 crores—a cost escalation of a thousand per cent, and still counting! Meanwhile, ticket sales on the opening day, announced in screaming headlines next morning, have crossed Rs 20 lakhs. At this dramatic rate, it will be close to the 22nd century before the Organising Committee even begins to discharge its debt to the country.

And, of course, the innocent Vajpayee did not care to ask what the infrastructure expense would be. So sanction was given without a khota paisa being set aside for Games venues, flyovers and underpasses, shiny new airports, metro lines from nowhere to nowhere, and what not. No one knows—or, at any rate, tells—what that infrastructure expenditure might amount to: the most modest estimate is upwards of Rs 20,000 crores and the wildest printed estimate suggests Rs 60,000 crores.

And for the privilege of spending this humungous sum (on, inter alia, relaying pavements on the best pavemented roads of Lutyens’ Delhi!), Vajpayee, on the telephone, in the middle of the Indian night, agreed to the Indian delegation at Montego Bay offering an “incentive” of $100,000 to every Commonwealth country—Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand included—to “train” their participants. Would I be inviting defamation charges in calling this sweetener a “bribe”?

When the government changed, we could—and should—have revised our offer to host the Games, or at least put a lid on what the government would spend. Instead, the same Finance Ministry and Planning Commission, which solemnly reminded us that we are a “poor” country when Rs 600 crores was sought to finance gram nyayalayas to bring justice to the doorstep of the poor, became completely open-handed in meeting every demand of the Organising Committee and every estimate of the infrastructure implementation agencies. Why? Why are we like this, only?

Just one reason: false prestige, a belief that we can earn standing in the international community by financing a 10-day sports circus while retaining the position we have held on the UN Human Development Index for the last 15 years—position no. 134 (almost the same as we would have held in medal tallies if the number of Commonwealth countries was 134).

Poor, poor Mahatma Gandhi, who said the “India of my dreams” is an India in which the poor of India will be the focus of public attention and every Indian, however poor, will feel he is a participant in the building of new India. Go, tell that to the tribals of Abujmarh—and perhaps they will tell their Naxal cousins.
Our middle class and our political class are so committed to these false values, this loot of the moral legacy of our Freedom Movement, that not even the ticking of the adding machine could stop the relentless forward movement of the expenditure clock.

As Minister of Sports, I tried to stop it—and found myself in a minority of one. I was soon out on my ear. The Planning Commission, which was not even squinting at the Organising Committee’s demand for Rs 6000 crores for a 10-day tamasha, found itself unable to agree to the same sum being spent over 10 years on bringing basic sports facilities to every panchayat and every mohalla of this viciously poor nation.

China not only hosted the Olympics, it also picked up the highest number of medals because their sports authorities first ensured that every Chinese child plays sports and games—and thus widens to the full the net which catches the top-rung talent. We do next to nothing about bringing our children in the sporting net—and, therefore, show up our comic side when medals are announced.

The only good that will come out of the Commonwealth Games would be a decision to never again bid for such games until every Indian child gets a minimum to eat, an assured basic education and a playground with trained coaches to discover the sportsperson in himself or herself. That, alas, is no part of our self-satisfied middle class dream for India—which is why the Maoist is knocking at our gates.
(Courtesy: Crest)

The author is a former IFS officer and erstwhile Union Minister for Sports and Panchayati Raj; he is currently a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha.

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