Delhi off to false start

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 February, 2008, 12:00am

On the sprawling, dusty, wasteland that lies on the east bank of the Yamuna River, the site of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, one bulldozer lies idle and two labourers with shovels stand chatting under the grey skies. With fewer than 1,000 days to go for the Games, instead of a skyline full of cranes and the ground rumbling with men and machines at work, these 63 hectares of land have not even been flattened.

Across the road, near the imposing dusty pink Akshardham Temple which will showcase Indian culture, there is a little more activity and noise.

The steel girders for the foundation of the athletes' village where luxury flats, tennis courts and swimming pools are being constructed have been pushed into the ground. But the work has only just begun.

Panic has set in. New Delhi wants to use the biggest sporting event in its history to project itself as an emerging power with a beautiful and modern capital, not as a poor country with a dirty, congested city of ugly suburbs and stinking slums.

The only problem is that not a single one of the 64 projects that are part of the US$18 billion facelift has been finished.

It took last month's visit to China, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saw manic urgency in the preparations for the Olympic Games, for him to realise that a mortifying embarrassment was in the making.

He called a special meeting to knock heads together. He ordered civil servants and ministers, engrossed in red tape, turf battles, and ego clashes, to get cracking. There has been no progress because every time one ministry or agency approves a plan, a rival body vetoes it.

'In India, things always happen at the last minute, when our backs are against the wall. But even so, this delay is frightening. I can't see how we can build such huge infrastructure in so little time. I fear we are heading for humiliation,' said a civil servant in the petroleum ministry.

Delhi's 15 million residents, who last saw the city being spruced up in 1982 for the Asian Games, have been looking forward to being given what Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dixit, says will be a 'world class' city.

There was excitement when India beat Canada in 2003 to win the right to host the Games. 'I was thrilled because it meant the city would be beautified and get brand new amenities. But I haven't seen so much as a new lamp post coming up,' maths tutor Atul Gupta said.

Apart from a few new pavements, re-painted railings, and some new buses, there are no physical signs of this promised transformation.

What residents have been promised is prestige projects that will make them proud hosts to an estimated 150,000 visitors for the Games: gleaming new stadiums, new underground lines, a state-of-the-art airport, a reliable electricity and water supply, and the transformation of the main railway station (a slum where the homeless sleep and live on the platforms), into a vast glass and steel edifice.

New roads, tunnels, bridges, light rail transit systems, and flyovers are meant to ease the movement of people and vehicles in time for October 2010. In a city that suffers two power cuts every day, even in winter, new power plants have been promised to cater for the massive surge in demand during the Games.

'My neighbourhood gets three power cuts of one hour every day and it's not even hot, it's winter. If it's as bad as this now, I dread to imagine what will happen during the Games. Can you imagine the embarrassment, with the whole world watching, if the lights go off?' public relations executive Akash Tiwari said.

On top of all this, the filthy Yamuna River, known as 'the Drain of Delhi', has to be cleaned up to provide clean drinking water. 'We are determined to make the Yamuna as clean as the Thames, not just for the Games but for all our residents,' said Mrs Dixit.

This is a herculean task, attempted by many over the years but with the same dismal results. The river is so polluted with sewage and rubbish that even birds and animals stay well away from the toxic white foam that froths on the surface.

Work has begun on only 20 of the 64 infrastructure projects. Of these, 18 are road projects and work has started on only two.

One of the biggest problems is lack of hotel space. As it is, visitors to the capital are appalled by the high tariffs charged by hotels, the result of a massive shortage of hotel rooms throughout India.

In desperation, the government has urged Delhi residents to offer their homes as bed-and-breakfast places for visitors. This scheme will provide around 600 rooms. But the government needs 30,000 more.

As for building new hotels, the process of identifying sites and inviting bids has been paralysed by red tape for years.

Environmentalists have made a hard task even harder. 'Wherever the government wants to acquire land for a road or hotel, these groups lodge petitions in the courts objecting on some ground or another. It's impossible to get anything off the ground,' political commentator Satish Jacob said.

In fact, environmentalist Vinod Jain has taken the government to court over the athletes' village, saying that construction will clog up the river bed and expose city dwellers to flooding during the monsoon.

The only project that is proceeding well is the metro. New lines and stations are being added and work is on schedule. In fact, the only other building activity near the Games site is the tunnelling for the metro line that will connect the Games Village to the rest of the capital.

With October 2010 looming, anxiety is so high about the inordinate delays that some members of the ruling Congress Party are calling for young Rahul Gandhi, son of Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, to take charge of the shambles.

Their motive is partly a desire to flatter a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty - it will give the untried and inexperienced Mr Gandhi an opportunity to prove his mettle if he organises a successful event. His father, Rajiv, also cut his teeth by handling the preparations for the 1982 Asian Games.

But it is partly genuine too, based on the conviction that only a big name can force the warring ministries and municipal agencies to sink their differences and work together. Mr Gandhi has made no response to the plea so far.

For the city's poor, the Games are bad news. Rickshaw pullers are going to be banned from many streets to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. Many will have to undergo a belated driving test.

And the limbless, semi-naked beggars at the traffic lights will have to watch out. Begging is illegal but all earlier attempts to remove them have failed. At present, beggars who are arrested tend to be let off by judges for want of evidence as few eyewitnesses are prepared to testify against someone who is already down and out.

Now they will be fingerprinted and photographed as part of a drive to clear them ahead of the Games. The database will help the police to get habitual beggars convicted and then rehabilitated.

Amid the gloom about the delays, the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi unwittingly provided some humour.

At the unveiling of the Games logo last month, Mr Kalmadi predicted that the successful hosting of the 2010 Games would pave the way for Delhi to bid for the 2020 Olympics.

Some members of the audience suppressed laughter. 'We've bumbled around since 2003 doing nothing. Now we have to squeeze everything into two years. Is this how a so-called emerging superpower should conduct itself?' asked call centre worker Nidhi Choudhury, who was at the ceremony.

Mr Jacob was equally scathing. 'The only thing that's been working is the clock put up around the city, marking the countdown to the Games.'