Toilet-Paper Scandal in India 'Shames' Commonwealth Games Host

Organizers of the Commonwealth Games called a press conference this week to talk about how prepared New Delhi was to host a sporting event for 71 countries. Instead, they fielded questions about how much they paid for toilet paper.

Allegations of corruption and mismanagement are overtaking a tournament that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said would “signal to the world that India is rapidly marching ahead with confidence.” The Economic Times newspaper, citing internal documents, said organizers bought $80 rolls of toilet paper, $61 soap dispensers and $125 first-aid kits.

Government spending for the Commonwealth Games has overrun a 2003 estimate of $500 million by more than nine-fold. The Games have been criticized as the most expensive ever by the Comptroller and Auditor General agency and opposition parties in a nation where the World Bank says 828 million people live on less than $2 a day.

“The publicity that we have received, and how the world is looking at us, is in a negative fashion,” said Randhir Singh, vice chairman of the organizing committee of the Commonwealth Games 2010. “That brings me great shame.”

Singh declined to comment to Bloomberg News on the newspaper reports. Lalit Bhanot, secretary general of the organizing committee, said the reports were “inaccurate and mischievous.” He declined to elaborate.

No ‘Extravagance’

India spent at least $4.6 billion -- compared with its December 2003 estimate of $500 million -- upgrading stadiums, refurbishing roads and building power and water utilities. It spent another $2.7 billion on a new airport terminal to welcome athletes participating in the 12-day event starting Oct. 3.

“We have not indulged in any extravagance,” M.S. Gill, the minister for sports, told lawmakers last week.

India is spending less money than London and Beijing as hosts of the 2012 and 2008 Summer Olympics, respectively, he said. The last time India spent money upgrading and building new stadiums was for the 1982 Asiad Games, he said.

“The newly built stadia are not only spacious but are best with the state-of-the-art technology,” Gill said. “They are not only beautiful but economical in comparison with those built in London or China.”

Officials Resign

The controversies prompted the organizing committee’s treasurer and another member to resign. Prime Minister Singh ordered an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation and said Aug. 14 he would personally inspect some facilities.

At least 20 stadiums were refurbished or built from scratch for $640 million, said Manish Tiwari, spokesman for the Congress party-led ruling coalition. Three are ready to use, organizers said. The others are being fumigated for mosquitoes carrying dengue and malaria as structural work finishes.

A day after the weightlifting hall opened Aug. 1, its roof leaked during a monsoon, and workers in white helmets climbed across the structure to patch it.

India’s Central Vigilance Commission said in August that “almost all” the contractors for games-related projects inflated their costs. The quality of work was poor, and “test records were fabricated to show high strength,” according to the government commission set up to investigate corruption.

The commission said concrete samples from stadiums, athlete housing and parking facilities failed a key strength measure, and the structures used reinforced steel that wasn’t properly treated with anti-corrosive materials.

$61 vs. $1.97

“The Commission has advised the organizations concerned to take corrective steps,” it wrote in a report urging authorities to fix “responsibility against officers identified for lapses.”

Organizers spent $220 on mirrors costing $98 retail, $61 on soap dispensers costing $1.97, and $250,190 on high-altitude simulators costing $11,830, according to reports by the Economic Times and India Today magazine, citing tender documents.

Bhanot declined to comment to Bloomberg News.

From the start, the government was criticized for spending money on the games instead of on programs to alleviate poverty. UNICEF says 665 million Indians don’t have access to toilets, so they defecate in public.

The games will displace at least 400,000 of New Delhi’s 11.8 million residents, according to an estimate by the New Delhi-based Housing and Land Rights Network.

“Developing countries have very little reason to host these games,” said Shalini Mishra, a senior researcher at the non-profit organization. “The amount of money that has been spent on stadiums alone could have done so much more for the poor. The government seems to have lost its sense of priorities.”

Bamboo Screens

Slums that weren’t cleared in time will be screened off with bamboo to “conceal the sights,” said New Delhi Chief Secretary Rakesh Mehta, the city’s top bureaucrat. Beggars will be taken off the streets, traffic will be rerouted and much of the city center will become a high-security zone.

As traffic whizzed by her 2-year-old son, Malati Mahto chipped away at the pavement on New Delhi’s posh Lodhi Road, refurbishing the main thoroughfare for traffic to the main arena, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and parking lots. She said she earns $1.22 working 12-14 hours a day with no helmet or gloves.

The New Delhi government said all laborers are supposed to earn at least $9 a day.

The 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) stretch is getting a $3.9- million makeover, according to the New Delhi Municipal Corp. The city is spending $3.5 billion to upgrade highways, expand the subway system and build the airport terminal, minister of urban development S. Jaipal Reddy said.

Mahto, 28, said she was told by the contractor who hired her that her family must leave their blue, plastic hut alongside Lodhi Road by Sept. 15.

“They told me that people will come from England and Australia to run and jump,” Mahto said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mehul Srivastava in New Delhi at msrivastava6@bloomberg.net

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