Debacle in New Delhi

How can India be a superpower if it can't even build a bridge?


View a slide show of New Delhi’s Commonwealth Games crisis.

What was meant to be India’s coming out party is quickly turning into a walk of shame. Only 10 days remain before the curtains go up on New Delhi’s Commonwealth Games, the 19th edition of a quadrennial gathering that brings together the 70-odd nations of the former British Empire, and India’s capital is a city in disarray.

In the past week, Islamist terrorists claimed credit for injuring two Taiwanese tourists in a drive-by shooting; a pedestrian bridge near the event’s flagship stadium collapsed, injuring 23 workers; a Scottish official declared the athlete’s village “unfit for human habitation”; and Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand issued travel advisories warning their citizens of more terrorist attacks during the games.

Ratcheting up the pressure on India, officials from England and New Zealand have raised doubts about whether the games will go ahead as scheduled. On Wednesday, Sir Andrew Foster, the chairman of England’s Commonwealth team, told the BBC that the future of the event remained “on a knife edge.” And what was a trickle of top athletes pulling out threatens to turn into a flood. Among those who won’t be in Delhi come October: Jamaican sprinters Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser, Australian tennis stars Lleyton Hewitt and Samantha Stosur, Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy, and English triple-jumper Phillips Idowu.

Cancellation still appears unlikely. Depending on whom you ask, and on whether you include a broader aesthetic and infrastructure facelift for Delhi timed to coincide with the games, India has sunk between $3 billion and $10 billion on the event. With national prestige riding on a successful outcome, it would take a catastrophe — say a major terrorist attack or flooding on the streets of Delhi — for the government to throw in the towel. And decisions by individual competitors notwithstanding, few countries would risk a diplomatic row with India by pulling out over the state of athletes’ apartments and amorphous fears of terrorism.

Nonetheless, the controversy over the games highlights the gulf between India’s lofty ambitions and its often messy reality. Over the last 20 years, liberalization and globalization have unshackled many of the country’s most productive citizens from heavy-handed socialism and raised living standards faster than at any time in the nation’s history. But even as the private sector booms — swelling the middle class and producing billionaires by the fistful — the quality of governance remains abysmal. Neither the courts nor the electorate punish public servants for amassing private fortunes. In parts of the country, the political and criminal classes are hard to tell apart.

Even before the most recent spate of bad news, the run-up to the Commonwealth Games has been plagued with scandal: multimillion-dollar stadiums with leaky roofs, fly-by-night firms accused of collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars without a written contract, and absurdly overpriced equipment and supplies, including $8,700 air-conditioners, $19,500 treadmills, and, most famously, $80 toilet paper rolls. Needless to say, Delhi is hardly the only city in the world where politicians and building contractors collude. But somehow, in other places, overpriced roads and bridges don’t seem to fall apart with such alarming regularity.

For India’s burgeoning middle class, the Commonwealth Games’ natural audience, daily reminders of official ineptitude and corruption are hard to swallow. A popular joke on Twitter about Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the organizing committee and a member of the ruling Congress Party, sums up the national mood: “Suresh Kalmadi tried to hang himself but the ceiling collapsed!” Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and national Sports Minister M.S. Gill are the other popular villains. The comparison with Beijing’s immaculate hosting of the 2008 Olympics only adds insult to injury.

Of course, as with so much else in India, there’s always the chance the games will come together at the last minute in the madly disorganized but ultimately enjoyable manner of a Punjabi wedding (to use the Indian media’s favorite metaphor). Early troubles with stadiums appear to have been resolved for the most part — at least until Wednesday, when part of a false ceiling collapsed at a weight-lifting venue. A frenzied clean-up job will likely make the athlete’s village “fit for human habitation.” And barring further mishaps, once the games begin, the media’s attention will naturally shift from organizational deficiencies to athletic performance. But the games’ deficiencies might actually be a home-field advantage: The absence of many international stars will likely give India’s traditionally underperforming athletes their 15 minutes of Commonwealth-wide fame.

Larger questions about India’s governance capabilities remain. The Indian middle class — at best, 300 million people out of a population of 1.1 billion — may not have the numbers to decide elections, but it needs to demand a greater say in the country’s governance. This means finding ways to translate its economic muscle into political clout. Until Indian politicians are held to the same standards as their counterparts in advanced democracies, the country will have to continue to suffer the ignominy of collapsing bridges, sub-par apartment complexes, and $80 toilet rolls.

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