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India's cynical plans for Delhi to become 'a world class city' for the 2010 Commonwealth Games

Although the Commonwealth Games are just under three years away, India's capital is being reshaped as the city prepares for the biggest sporting event in its history. The Delhi government has begun putting up posters saying the capital will be transformed into a "world-class city" by the 2010 deadline.

There will be the new underground lines, lavish stadiums and even a hi-tech ambulance service that is guaranteed to get to people in 15 minutes. Most notable are the prestige projects meant to dispel most visitors' first impression that India is a country soaked in poverty.

Delhi's main railway station, which currently doubles as a home for the destitute, will be replaced by a 212-acre glass and steel structure. The city's new seven-storey airport, designed to handle 50m passengers, aims to be open by 2010. The authorities also plan to ban 400,000 bicycle rickshaws, regularly seen pedalling across city flyovers, and order the remaining 100,000 to take a driving test.

However, campaigners say that the rush to modernise is bringing "unsuitable" development to many parts of the capital. Environmentalists highlight the case of the athletes' village, a luxury riverside development in Delhi, which is now being considered by the courts.

The banks of the river Yamuna, which runs through the capital, had been off-limits to developers. For almost 60 years only farmers were allowed to use the fertile banks to grow vegetables for local markets. However, last September work began on the complex, which consists of 1,100 luxury flats, tennis courts and swimming pools. The initial cost is estimated at 5 trillion rupees (£63m).

Environmentalists claim that when the Yamuna next bursts its banks the water will inundate residential areas further downstream. "The land was leased to farmers and in the agreement there was a provision that the state could have it back for public purposes," said Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, the non-governmental organisation taking Delhi city to court. "But what is the public purpose? The Commonwealth games runs for two weeks. What is the use after that? This is a predatory state in action taking land from the poor to hand to the rich."

The Delhi government has admitted that there were some concerns expressed by the "environmental agencies", but the project would go ahead. "Already there has been much delay to the project and we do not want any further delay, as it will be the biggest sports event hosted by India until now," said Sheila Dixit, the chief minister of the capital, earlier this year.

Delhi is also making serious attempts to check traffic levels on its congested roads, with the aim of cutting air pollution ahead of the Commonwealth games. Breathing Delhi's air is estimated to be equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day and much of the smog is caused by traffic. To help reduce pollution and congestion, Delhi's planners have brought forward plans for bus-only lanes and overground light rail lines.

But motorists have been incensed by the go-ahead to redesign 67 miles of roads so that only half the space ends up available for cars. On these corridors, the highway will be partitioned by dividers giving a quarter of the road space to cyclists and the rest to buses.

"This is completely unfair. Ninety five per cent of the users get half the space. While cyclists who comprise of 0.82% of the users get a quarter of the road. It's nuts," said Sanjay Kaul, president of Paople's Action, a residents' group. "The scheme would never have got off the ground if it were not for the Commonwealth games. The city bureaucrats are desperate to show they can get people out of cars."

There has also been an outbreak of "nimbyism" by residents in posh part of south Delhi over a new two mile stretch of the metro system which is designed to travel on elevated railway tracks. A number of groups have complained that passengers would be able to "peep into people's bedrooms". Officials say that such disputes were inevitable in a city with such sagging infrastructure. Just to accommodate the expected number of tourists, planners calculate the city needs another 10,000 hotel rooms.

Lalit Bhanot, the secretary of the Commonwealth games organising committee, told the Guardian that the economic effects of renewing the city would trickle down to "the common man". He said that currently Delhi suffers power cuts every day. "This affects every person. But by October 2010, Delhi will have a surplus of power and no electricity blackouts. That is going to be a real benefit and thanks to Commonwealth games."

When India beat Canada in 2003 to win the right to host the Commonwealth Games, few of the capital's 15m people were ready for the upheaval. Slums have been demolished, shopping malls brought down and "greening measures" adopted. The facelift, including new roads and power plants, is estimated to cost the Indian taxpayer more than £10bn. The organising committee recently said that India might want to focus on preparing its athletes, rather than infrastructure.

From: Delhi cleans up for Commonwealth games but leaves locals without sporting chance, Randeep Ramesh in Delhi, Guardian, January 8, 2008

More at: Guardian, Ramesh

See also: Amita Baviskar

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