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Mud, Hubris and Malevolent Urban Change

India’s Commonwealth Games


As I write this introduction in New Delhi, on the eighth day of the Commonwealth Games, the city is unusually calm. Criticism of the Games, previously shrill, is also noticeably muted, though not for a lack of reasons to complain. Attendance at most competitions has been woefully inadequate, and life in the city has become unbearable, thanks to countless security checkpoints, and the looming presence of some 100,000 military and paramilitary troops. Like other Indians, however, Delhiites would rather point to the grandeur of the opening ceremony, and to the droves of athletes who have rushed to get free dental check-ups at the state-of-the-art medical clinic in the athletes’ village. Indeed, all eyes are on restoring national pride, which received a sound battering in the weeks prior to the Games, when virtually every major media outlet in the West heartlessly ridiculed India’s quest to play host, churning out stories about collapsing bridges, leaking sewers, cow dung and stray dogs. Such reports often delivered in demeaning, Orientalist terms that portrayed India as a primitive, chaotic place will ironically lead to the hosting of more wasteful mega-events. India seems more preoccupied than ever with showing off its resources and firepower, of which it certainly has plenty, than worrying about their mal-distribution and misuse. This attitude, as my article suggests, is at the heart of all that is wrong with the Commonwealth Games.

Delhi is an anxious city this monsoon season, struggling to meet an onerous deadline. Preparations are on at a feverish pace for the nineteenth Commonwealth Games, which will arrive in town in less than two months (October 3-14), along with some 8500 athletes from the seventy-one states and territories that were once parts of the British Empire (Canada has hosted the Commonwealth Games on four previous occasions–Hamilton, 1930; Vancouver, 1954; Edmonton, 1978 and Victoria 1994–and will send approximately 400 athletes to Delhi).

Around-the-clock construction amid spells of heavy rain has turned Delhi into a swirl of mud and scaffolding. But the city’s frustrated residents expect that their upturned streets, recurrent blackouts and impassable traffic jams will soon give way to something spectacular. On the horizon, or so they’ve been told, 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 of India’s growing reputation as a the next regional superpower.

This hubris-laden dream is a familiar one. It is well-known that countries compete fiercely to host global mega-events such as the Olympics and Expos (Halifax bid for 2014 Commonwealth Games, but pulled out when the province withdrew its support due to concerns over a projected budget of CAN$1.7 Billion). 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 linger in the pending file for years: it is easier to undercut local opposition under the pressure of a fixed deadline and the international spotlight. All too often, however, thereforms involved in “re-branding” a city (and country) amount to a giant subsidy to tourists and globally connected urban elites at the expense of local collective consumption by the poor. Delhi’s Commonwealth Games (CWG), a case in point, is being employed to invigorate an elite-driven program of urban change that will endure well beyond the twelve days assigned to sporting competition.

Among the changes specific to the CWG is an extravagant renovation of existing sports venues–Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, overhauled by a German engineering firm, now resembles a mammoth spacecraft–and the construction of a “Games Village” along the river Yamuna, which the President of the Indian Olympic Association assures will be “the best Games village in the world, perhaps better than the Olympic village at Beijing.” Other “world class” items to be paraded at the event include new arenas for tennis, wrestling and “big bore” shooting. As pointed out in a recent Times of India editorial, these elite facilities are products of Western or Dubai-based conglomerates from “conception to realization.” Following the event, furthermore, many shall be turned into 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 MLAs associated with the Delhi State government demanded them at discounted rates.

Though hard to believe at present, given Delhi’s rubble-strewn streets and debris-clogged drainpipes, 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.” Delhi will get wider roads, higher bridges, cloverleaf flyovers, bus corridors, and an expanded subway network. A flashy new airport terminal, cited as the eighth largest in the world, is among the few projects actually completed.

With the population of the city expected to swell to twenty-three million by 2021, such projects may seem reasonable, especially if all the money goes where it should (a new corruption scandal surfaces with each passing day). But even if corruption were (miraculously) not a factor, the renovations underway would probably fall short of serving the larger public interest. Delhi Metro stands criticized 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 duly overruled such objections, despite the fact that the CWG are being heralded as the “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 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 metropolises such as Delhi and Mumbai tend to pull away scarce resources and investment from other regions). This is, quite plainly, the agenda of an affluent minority that is relatively detached from local conditions and the local population.

The weaponization of Delhi is also cause for concern. The Home Ministry, Ministry of Sports, and Delhi Police have also developed a security agenda that will leave a lasting imprint on the city. The basics include a fourteen-foot fence around the main stadium, along with food tasters, helicopter surveillance, armed guards and snipers to protect athletes and their families (Scotland Yard is reportedly working with Delhi Police to protect British athletes). Before the Games, fifty-eight important markets and twenty-seven border checkpoints across Delhi will be secured with CCTV cameras; an automated fingerprint and palm identification system, the first for the country, will be installed at 135 police stations, and a high-tech “intelligent traffic management system,” equipped with radars, will be installed in core areas of the city. Delhi Police is also acquiring three armored vehicles, making Delhi “the first city in the country to use such vehicles in policing.”

Behavioral changes are expected as well. 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 CWG has ballooned from an initial outlay of INR 1,899 crore (USD 440 million) in 2003 to an official figure of INR 11,000 crore (USD 2.5 Billion), an estimate that 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)–an arm of the global movement, Habitat International Coalition–the total expenditure on infrastructure, beautification projects and security is unknown, but is likely to be in the “hundreds of thousands of crores” (tens of billions of U.S. dollars).

The report suggests that the CWG is “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 argues that such outrageous 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 CWG] has been characterized by a lack of public participation, transparency and government accountability.” The HRLN report leaves little doubt that no democratic community input went into the decision to host this wasteful event.

The HRLN has also brought to light some of the worrying social and environmental consequences of the event. Testimonials from civil society groups along with a Right to Information (RTI) application filed specifically for 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 that was imported to Delhi in 1960. Funds reserved for helping marginalized communities (under the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan) were diverted to cover expenses related to the CWG. Over 100,000 families have already been evicted in order to make space for CWG-related projects, and a further 30,000 to 40,000 are on the cusp of “relocation,” an euphemism for shunting the poor to the remote peripheries of the city, where they face grueling commutes to work and disrupted schooling for their children.

Groups such as 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 labor at CWG construction sites, and a whole array of barefaced labor violations. As a consequence of the construction boom sparked by the CWG, some one million migrant workers have poured into Delhi from neighboring areas in Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, which are among the poorest in the country, if not the world. Most work without proper documentation for exploitative labour contractors–usually for much less than Delhi’s minimumwage of INR 152 (USD 3) per eight hours work–and live in squalid, makeshift roadside camps that lack even the most basic amenities. Eighteen on-site injuries and forty-two deaths have been officially reported (the national media, however, has devoted far less attention to the concerns raised by HLRN and other NGOs than to various allegations of corruption, and problems that could potentially “embarrass” India, such as unfinished or shoddily built stadiums and the perception of insufficient security).

The arrogant misallocation of resources, labor violations and privatization and securitization of public space associated with the CWG are by no means unique moments in Delhi’s recent history. Since the early 1990s, when India embarked on a program of radical economic liberalization, 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.” Slumdwellers, street vendors and rickshaw pullers have been consistently targeted, and urban space has become increasingly fragmented by fences, barbed wire and shards of broken glass. Indeed, gated communities, segregated enclaves and even private townships appear to be the way of the future.

The demand for a safe and pristine bourgeois utopia–often framed in the language of a “public need” for sanitation, security and environmental protection–has found mounting support among city officials and the judiciary. The “beautification” of freshly “cleaned-up” promenades, parks, beaches and waterfronts has been undertaken with financial support from the corporate sector, with private security firms awarded contracts for the surveillance of 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 CWG will thus strengthen a model of inequitable urban change that is well underway in Delhi and other Indian cities; a program driven by the rather fascistic vision of an affluent minority who would rather not be reminded that 77 percent of the India’s population live on less than INR 20 (USD 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, now increasingly, the fear of national humiliation, have served well to undermine the independent activists and urban social movements that routinely resist this agenda.

Currently in India, Mitu Sengupta is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University.

This article appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Canadian Dimension (The New Feminism).


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