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Delhi’s Date with the Common Wealth Games 2010

Common Wealth or Kiss of Death? by Amita Baviskar

I am sitting across the desk from Shiela Dikshit in a room that is alive with irony. We are talking about the Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi in 2010. The Chief Minister’s office is located in what used to be the Players’ Building, a hostel meant for Asiad’82. Asiad’82 came and went, but the Players’ Building wasn’t ready on time. For fifteen years, it remained a concrete shell looming over the west bank of the Yamuna off Vikas Marg till the Dikshit government came to its rescue. So does the ghost of games past haunt the Chief Minister? Does the spectre of prestigious projects overrunning their deadline give Ms Dikshit sleepless nights?

The clock’s ticking away and there is little progress to show on the ground. Yet the Chief Minister is cheerful and upbeat, pointing out that construction technology now allows mega-projects to be completed within months. The Commonwealth (CW) Games are her show, her grand vision to make Delhi a ‘world-class city’, words that have been repeated so often that they have become Harry Potter-esque incantations, charms endowed with magical powers. Say ‘world-class’ and you conjure up a gleaming cityscape of skyscrapers, fast-flowing traffic, and neon-lit branded shops and restaurants, with unlimited power and water. The Games offer an opportunity to fast forward into this future.

The Games also offer an opportunity for urban renewal and development. When Barcelona and Manchester hosted similar events, they seized the chance to reinvent their cities, turning depressed industrial areas into vibrant cultural centres. A similar turnaround is possible in Delhi too. For a prestigious event like the Games, money is no object. The government’s purse is open wide. Having a conspicuous deadline hovering over their heads presses an otherwise lethargic bureaucracy into action. Money and motivation can be powerful galvanizing forces to get the city going, to upgrade infrastructure, to create lasting resources, to provide jobs and, crucially, enhance that extra something that makes a city special. Delhi’s distinctive appeal lies in its historical heritage and greenery, and in the warmth and vitality of its street life. The Games can be an opportunity to buttress the city’s strengths while addressing its chronic infrastructural shortages.

So I embarked on a self-guided Dilli darshan [sightseeing tour], to see for myself how this mega-event would transform the city’s landscape and our lives. I went armed with facts and figures culled from Delhi government documents and the Games website, and I returned shell-shocked, dismayed with what the Games will bring to our city.

I began at the Indira Gandhi (IG) stadium on Ring Road, close by the Delhi Secretariat. This, together with the Jawaharlal Nehru (JN) Stadium, was the showpiece of Asiad’82. The mammoth indoor stadium, its retractable roof hailed as a triumph of technology, is now decrepit, its roof frozen with rust. Apart from the occasional Bollywood Nite and badminton tournament, nothing happens here. The morose chaukidar I met said, ‘madam, chhat se pani leak hota hai’. Situated on the subsidence-prone Yamuna bank, the stadium is actually tilting to one side, a bit like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. All this is quite amusing but for the fact that crores of rupees – your money and mine – went to pay for this white elephant. The JN stadium has also remained under-used for the last 25 years. When was the last time you went to watch something there? Probably never. But, you will be happy to learn that another 1250 crores [1 crore = 10 million] of our money will now be spent to renovate these and other existing venues. And then, after a couple of weeks of use in October 2010, they will again relapse into comatose concreteness.

If this has been the sorry fate of our last big building spree, why are we building four new air-conditioned stadiums? Why are we spending more crores on buildings that are destined to be dinosaurs from the day they are conceived? Is this the best way to use public money? Or is this the best way to line builders’ pockets? A spanking new stadium at the IG complex; another one in the Yamuna Sports Complex near Anand Vihar; one more at the Tyagaraj Complex near INA Market; and another one at Siri Fort. Each one of these will swallow up precious open space and saddle us with a bigger tax burden. Another stadium will be built at the JN stadium venue but, mercifully, it will be a less expensive open-air one. According to the Delhi Games website, this one will ‘provide a lasting legacy for the sport of Lawn Bowls’. Yeah, that’s what this city really needs, Lawn Bowls.

Back in the 1980s, large chunks of the Siri Fort forest were cleared to construct the Asiad Village and other amenities. After the Games, the houses were sold off, creating a pretty little posh colony for senior bureaucrats and sundry well-connected folk. In my book, that’s land grab, a neat government scam to convert public green spaces into private property. The remaining Siri Forest is now headed the same way, with parts to be ‘converted’ (read ‘clear-felled’) into a site for the new stadium. Why won’t the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) use the vacant police wireless ground that’s right next door? Well, because it can’t be bothered with the tedious land acquisition process. So hundreds of trees will be cut. Big deal, they say. We’re talking national prestige and world-class city here; what’s a few trees?

DDA’s reluctance to acquire land from another government agency is reportedly behind its decision to not use the Safdarjung Airport as the site for the CW Games Village. K. T. Ravindran, urban planner and architect, points out, ‘The abandoned airfield and its surrounding land have, in fact, been earmarked for sports in the Delhi Master Plan’. The place is close to the main Games venues, which minimizes travel time for participants and traffic disruptions for the rest of the city. Well-designed temporary structures, as suggested by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, would be a low-cost, environment-friendly option. But when I asked the CM about this, she firmly shook her head and said, ‘No, it’s too close to the Prime Minister’s house. Security risk’. At the time, I was suitably impressed but, later, I wondered. Security risk? That athletes might attack the PM? Or that the PM might attack the athletes? You figure it out.

So we have the disastrous decision to locate the Games Village on the Yamuna’s east bank, next to the Akshardham temple. Environmentalists have gone hoarse repeating this, but it still hasn’t registered for our city’s government. This is a flood plain. The river needs this space to accommodate its monsoon swell. This land recharges our city’s groundwater. For Delhi’s ecological security, it is of paramount importance that the floodplain be left untouched. It should be a no-go zone for construction. But the Dikshit government is committed to channelizing the river and turning the river bed into real estate Think of the Thames Embankment, it says, what a glittering jewel in London’s crown. But the Yamuna is not the Thames; its rhythm is harmonized to the distinctive tempo of the Indian subcontinent’s seasons. With the bulk of its flow concentrated in the monsoons, the Yamuna is liable to breach its embankments if denied its present expanse. The Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, a coalition of environmental and social activists, has analyzed the history of floods in the city and the evidence it presents is grim. As the Abhiyan points out, we already have too many buildings on the riverfront that shouldn’t be there: three power plants, the Delhi Secretariat and the Akshardham temple. We don’t need more, and certainly not a sprawling 150 acre strip of Games Village houses, hotels and malls.

Wait a minute, you say, hotels and malls? What’s that got to do with the Games? Everything, it seems. The Games are meant to boost growth and tourism, you see. They’re only a means to leverage funds for the bigger business of making the economy boom. So there are more than six hotel sites for sale in the Village and Parsvnath Builders has already strung up bunting that flutters in the wind, announcing its new mall next to Akshardham. Malls are right up there in the government’s list of what Delhi desperately needs, along with Lawn Bowls.

And hotels. According to the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India, that unbiased source the Delhi government likes to quote, we’ll need 20,000 more hotel rooms for foreign and domestic visitors. Which is all very exciting till we recall that Asiad’82 fetched us a grand total of 200 (no, this is not a typo) – two hundred – foreign tourists, according to a National Institute of Urban Affairs study. Why these off-the-wall projections of a tourism tsunami? To create a buzz, because building castles in the air lets the government justify the concrete messes it creates on the ground. No one stops to ask: does Delhi need to grow? Isn’t more growth for Delhi like giving a hyperactive child an energy-boosting tonic – a recipe for mayhem? We are already straining at the seams of our infrastructure, do we need the additional demand of energy-intensive, traffic-congesting, green area-swallowing malls and hotels?

Putting the Games Village jamna-paar has other implications too. All the other Games venues but one are located across the river. Which means the organizers will have to ferry about 8,000 participants over to the other side. There is no direct westward access from the Village site to the Nizamuddin bridge which, at the best of times, can be a bottleneck. So the Public Works Department (PWD) has conceived an elaborate series of flyovers and underpasses on the east bank, culminating on the other side in the justly infamous ‘tunnel road’ from the Nizamuddin bridge to JN stadium via Lodhi Road. The tunnel will cut through Sundar Nursery, a haven for tree-lovers, and pass by Humayun’s tomb, endangering a heritage that holds Sufi Delhi’s soul. The monuments around Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah enshrine Delhi’s mystic past, offering the sacred as a counterpoint to the secular thrust of the rest of the city. In the mad rush of contemporary life, when we need these spiritual sanctuaries more than ever, they are under threat. Seven centuries they’ve been here, only to be ruined for a two-week long event, a blip on the timeline of this ancient city.

This is what I don’t get. First they take a stupid decision like locating the Games Village on the eastern floodplain of the Yamuna. Then they make it worse by piling up other foolish schemes on top of it. In the name of transport infrastructure, we get more roads, flyovers, tunnels (another one was proposed from east Delhi to CP) which rapidly choke up, when what we need is demand-management that checks the phenomenal growth of private vehicles in the city. Why are we spending Rs 1250 crores on creating more road space, cutting trees and footpaths and making life worse for pedestrians and cyclists? Two reasons, neither of which the government can afford to ignore: one, upper-class Delhi’s car-centric view of their city and, two, the big bucks involved in roadworks. The Games have unleashed a feeding frenzy among those who give out contracts and those who execute them. Inflated tenders are the order of the day. That’s the political economy of large projects, impolitic to ignore yet impossible to document. I hear stories of the enormous sums passed under the table to get the tunnel road sanctioned, even as the Delhi Urban Arts Commission and the Archaeological Survey of India have been valiantly standing up to pressure from the highest quarters These are rumours, yet they don’t feel far-fetched. This is how the city runs, this is how elections are funded, it’s quid pro quo.

Up the river at Wazirabad, there’s another colossus coming up: the Signature Bridge. Whose signature, I wondered, till Shiela Dikshit claimed ownership with quiet pride. Part of the give-tourism-a-boost-by-building-on-the-river grand vision, the bridge and the surrounding 1,000-acre park will cost Rs 1,000 crores. People will ascend its 185-metre height in bubble lifts and dine in rooftop restaurants with panoramic views of… ahem, Khajuri-Bhajanpura resettlement colony and the Najafgarh Ganda Nala, with Jahangirpuri and Bhalaswa resettlement colonies and landfill on the horizon. I just can’t wait.

Meanwhile, an earlier bridge built by Feroze Shah Tughlaq that was used for six centuries and the tomb of Shah Alam, a Tughlaq-era saint, are at risk from the Wazirabad construction. Erased from the landscape, their traces will linger only in the meticulous archives of INTACH.

So much waste. Rs 40 crores spent in Melbourne last year to have Rani, Saif and Ash say ‘See you in India’. Kind of expensive for an invitation card, don’t you think? Another 49 crore rupees for free air travel, board and lodging for athletes and officials from all 71 countries. Yes, free! This is our fabled Indian hospitality, unprecedented in the world of multi-discipline Games. These freebies are how India won the bid against Hamilton, Canada. The estimated cost is already Rs 7,000 crores and climbing by the day. The CM is vague, ‘People say the Games will pay for themselves’. The only Games to have made money were the Los Angeles summer Olympics in 1984. Munich residents are still paying a special tax for the 1976 Olympics. Guess who will be stuck with the bill for this one?

Sorry to break up the party, folks, but we’re still a poor country and Delhi is still a struggling third world city. Just visit a government school or hospital and you’ll know. There’s a lot this city can do with Rs 7,000 crores. That sum could fund low-income housing for 3.5 lakh families, allowing those who were evicted from the Yamuna Pushta and elsewhere to live with dignity and security. It could finance ten Sewage Treatment Plants, each capable of cleaning 10 million litres a day, taking the Yamuna closer to its original unpolluted state. Unglamorous yet urgent needs like shelter and sanitation, health and education, are crying out for funds. Fulfil these and we’ll make Delhi truly world-class.

National prestige means that we are supposed to support the Games, wave our flag and feel proud. But prestige at what price? I am proud of Delhi, proud of its living heritage and culture. And I don’t want the Games or the mirage of a ‘world-class city’ to destroy what’s special about it. I want my money used for making Delhi better – for everyone, not just a handful of contractors, real estate developers, businessmen and politicians. Let’s cut the Games down to size and reclaim the city – for citizens and for the environment.

Amita Baviskar is Associate Professor, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University Enclave, Delhi 110007.

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