The Beijing Olympics brought infrastructure improvements. The 2010 Commonwealth Games could do the same for India, but it won't be easy
Hosting a global sporting event is a welcome excuse to spend big on infrastructure. It is estimated that only a fifth of the US$40 billion budget for Beijing 2008 went toward facilities built exclusively for the Olympics. The city now has, among other things, an expanded subway network, a modernized airport and a new rail link serving said airport.
As the venue for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, New Delhi is also looking at an upgrade. India’s capital should have a new bus fleet to replace a private service blamed for more than 100 deaths a year, a subway line running between the airport and city center, and a swank athletes’ village that can subsequently be converted into private housing.
But the infrastructure push in the city of 16 million, though sorely needed, has drawn little enthusiasim and no small amount of ire toward elected officials.
The complaints range from poor project planning that caused massive traffic snarls to allegations that the games village is an environmental disaster because it was built on the flood plain of the Yamuna River. As a result, there is very limited public support for the upcoming games.
Even India’s sports minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, has questioned the logic behind hosting the event. He places little value on the international kudos that may be won and would prefer to see the US$1.7 billion budget spent on providing better facilities for the poor.
“Whether you organize the Commonwealth Games in Delhi or in Melbourne, the state of people living in the colonies right opposite the games site [on the banks of Yamuna River] will remain the same,” Aiyar said in April ahead of a failed bid to host the 2014 Asian Games.
With such negative sentiment coming from the one person expected to champion India’s credentials as a sporting host, it’s little wonder the Olympic Council of Asia chose to go elsewhere.
Neither has the Commonwealth Games attracted much support from the leading English-language dailies. Editorials praise Beijing’s impressive infrastructure and call for similar developments in New Delhi – but minus the sports.
Part of the reason the world’s second-most-populous nation disdains the idea is that the country has won fewer than 20 medals at the Olympics since 1900, and some of these were picked up by British citizens of India. The simple fact is the country is much more focused on cricket.
Federal support for dedicated training facilities or even public playgrounds is about US$280 million, which comes to about a third of a cent per person. Even though China spends more than twice this amount, India’s sporting budget is under threat. The government is concerned about its election prospects in 2009 and is looking to focus its spending on education, health care and social programs – vital in a country where almost 600 million people live on less than a dollar a day.
Still, officials in New Delhi haven’t given up hope of generating some excitement for the Commonweath Games, hinting strongly that the country’s international reputation is at stake.
Sheila Dixit, chief minister of the federal city/state, has erected billboards that count down the days to the games and launched a public awareness campaign to eradicate bad manners such as spitting or urinating in public. She is also pushing bureaucrats to clean-up roads and allow residents to offer ad-hoc bed-and-breakfast services to cover the shortage of hotel rooms.
Few in the city pay attention to these efforts and, in some cases. the public has actively turned against them. The bus and bike lanes created as part of a new traffic management plan linked to the games incurred the wrath of car drivers who suddenly found themselves with less road space. The government responded by drastically scaling back the idea.
To a degree, this situation reflects the core differences that lie at the heart of the issue.
China sold its people on the economic benefits to be derived from hosting the Olympics and the payback in terms of international prestige. India, on the other hand, is awash with dissenting voices. People like sports. but they see encouraging large-scale sporting events as elitist; the government values prestige. but recognizes the bottom line is about winning votes rather than gold medals.