Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Commonwealth Games 2010: Considering the Costs

The chairman of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee has declared, "The games won't cost the country a penny," but that hasn't stopped the the Delhi government  from raising our taxes to pay for them.  You see, nothing in life comes without a cost--and the Commonwealth Games are no exception to that rule.  

Sometimes you have to laugh at all the things that are justified in the name of these games.  Because of the CWG, we'll soon be able to buy liquor in fancy malls, but we may be sent to jail and fined Rs. 50,000 if we are caught drinking in public.    Our street vendors--at least those visible to tourists--have been promised state-of-the-art, solar powered carts but we've all been asked to stop spitting and urinating on public roads.  Oh well, all good things require sacrifices!

On a more serious note, we have  a new metro, thousands of new buses and dozens of new flyovers, but nitrogen dioxide levels are exceeding prescribed limits, and the idea that Delhi might be "pollution free by 2010"--something we heard our leadership say as recently as 2007, seems like a bad joke.  And it's not just the air: if the Yamuna is not fully dead, it's at least dying--and 80% of what is is killing it originates in Delhi.  That's not surprising, given that about 45 percent of Delhi's population is not connected to the sewage system The fact that the Commonwealth Games Village  is built on the flood plain of the Yamuna is unlikely to help this situation, though we have heard endless talk about how  those facilities have been designed to conserve water. Unfortunately, the rest of Delhi is not doing so well: we currently waste about  half the clean water we get.

On the human front, the Delhi government is investing in biometric machines to help crack down on people convicted of begging, but it won't force contractors who take public money to pay the required minimum wage to their workers, and it tolerates child labor on public construction sites.  Apparently, we are unwilling to go after contractors who take public money and then steal from their own workers, but we have plenty of funds to punish poor people who annoy middle class residents and tourists by begging on street corners.  (As usual, it seems the price you pay is inversely related to the depth of your pockets.)

Yes, a lot has been done in the name of the Commonwealth Games.  We are becoming a World Class City.  But the cost has been high indeed.  Exactly how high is hard to say.  Some estimates put the budget for the games alone, excluding non-sports related infrastructure, at about 1.6 billion dollars, which would make it the most expensive CWG in history.   In a recent "Telhelka Avenues" advertisement, the Delhi government claimed to have spent over 17.5 billion dollars in games-related projects and infrastructure.  (That's where the flyovers, anti-begging biometric machines, and liquor stores come in, I suspect). Of course any city will collapse if it fails to invest in infrastructure, and it would be silly to say that all of that money was wasted--much of it was well spent.

I suspect the real cost of the games cannot be measured in dollars or rupees.  Perhaps the real price we've paid has had something to do with our willingness to publicly embrace a  perversion that has long been present in our priorities:  the CWG have served as an excuse to put off spending on things like schools, housing and clean water, and to invest instead in things the urban middle and upper classes seem to value most--transportation, unsustainable consumption, and projects that make our city look good to outsiders.

Let's hope that once the games are over, we will hear less about flyovers, fancy liquor stores and  airports that  meet "international standards." Instead, let's talk about a city that strives to provide clean water, decent housing and "word class" schools to all. Those things will cost money--a lot of it--but they won't require excuses!

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