Thursday, September 30, 2010

Delhi & the Commonwealth Games 2010

The city of Delhi means many things to many of us especially to the people of India. Our Nation’s capital is the seat of hectic political activity, the gateway to the rest of the country, the land of opportunities, and a transit point for many. Besides, Delhi has an extremely rich and a vibrant past that is substantial in its Old Monuments, which remind us of its heritage that dates back nearly 5,000 years. With its world-class flyovers, five star hotels, multiplexes, Metro Rail and now the newly opened Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi international Airport that meet international standards, Delhi has come a long way. Yet it is (with the rest of the India) far from being a perfect blend of the new and the old. While the coming up of MNCs in the city and its adjoining areas has opened channels for upward social mobility thereby producing a fleet of English speaking upper middle-class population, at the same time, they have also significantly widened the gap between the nouveau riches and the hopelessly poor leading to a fairly unstable society. Thus, on the one hand, where there is a world of unprecedented opulence for some, there is, on the other hand, persistent deprivation for many more that has made the narrower view of development (i.e. in terms of GNP, disposable income, industrialization, technological advancements etc.) nearly redundant in view of the inequalities that exist today. As rightly pointed out, development should be seen, as a process of expanding the real freedom that people enjoy, which includes health, education, food, clean drinking water, sanitation facilities, civil and political rights, and other basic rights that let people live with human dignity and self-worth. Anyway, with a lot of contrast that is easily discernable in the city today, Delhi is increasingly becoming the city of thieves and thugs, and of privileged few vs. the increasing percentage of population living below poverty line. The situation is further aggravated by our power-hungry leaders and corrupted politicians, who refuse to step on these shaky grounds, but on which they perhaps still believe they can create a steady economic power. One doesn’t have to wait for the future to see the outcome of this stark dichotomy – it is happening now.

Delhi is less than a week away from hosting the ‘queenly’ Commonwealth Games (CWG) 2010 (akin to Olympics), and the city has already been bombarded with severe criticism, both at home and outside. The reasons cited are varied and many that have been made worse by the frantic last-minute efforts of the Government to get the work done. There have been concerns with regard to hygiene, construction, security and disease in the city among the international community so much so that some high-profile athletes have pulled out from the Games. Even on the domestic front, CWG has not evoked much enthusiasm yet owing to reasons ranging from blatant corruption and massive miss-management of funds to dug-up roads, potholes and construction work that is rampant everywhere in the city at the moment, and will perhaps never even reach fruition. The verdict against the organizing committee and the Indian government seems justified as of now knowing how haphazardly they are working on fixing things at the eleventh-hour when they had close to seven years to plan and systematically execute work towards this fairly prestigious event. To top it all, the locals are made to bear the brunt with those at the lowest rungs of society being most affected. While for the majority of Delhi residents’ life has only got somewhat disturbed, the poorest of the lot have more or less lost their livelihood and homes to the Games wherein they will not even be invited.

Born and raised in Delhi, I was looking forward to this event for which my excitement grew when it was decided that Delhi will host the first ever Green CWG with a green vision, ‘to strive towards reducing carbon footprint and becoming the sustainable development benchmark for multi-disciplinary games in the future. Looking back at the sporadic initiatives that were taken up in the last year or so, one cannot say that the city did not make any progress in the run-up to the Games – new routes for the Metro have been inaugurated that now cover a large part of Delhi; eco-friendly venues have been constructed; tree plantation drives have been carried out; the number of buses running on CNG have been increased, sustainable transportation rallies have been carried out etc. – but surely these efforts were skewed as usual.
The Delhi Metro has an average ridership of 900,000 commuters per day and runs at an operational profit
Image from Wikipedia
Moreover, the games village that has been constructed to house around 7,000 athletes turned the spotlight away from these ‘seemingly’ green initiatives of the city to getting a green signal from some countries for whether they would be a part of the Games. If only Delhi had realized that it is futile to create islands of cleanliness and modernity for the rich, if they are to be surrounded by a sea of poverty, sickness and filth’. I cannot agree more with this statement.

The irony of the whole situation is that while sustainable development and green games were the self-imposed themes for CWG in Delhi, all that the organizing committee has been interested in is to merely keep ‘poverty’ under cover that entailed arresting/forcing the city beggars out of the streets, ousting the migrant workers from the city, prohibiting street vendors/hawkers from carrying out their business that by all means is the only source of livelihood for them, demolishing slum areas in a jiffy, seizing land for the construction of the stadiums, and hiding unimpressive areas from sight with large banners just to give a nice yet totally superficial impression of the city to our honored international visitors. Is that what is duly accomplished in the name of sustainable development and green games? Did the organizing committee not consider it worth their time to understand the vision well enough before embarking on their rather expensive cosmetic surgery? One wonders if this was the intention behind the organizing committee’s grandiose comments on showcasing urban sustainable development during the Games. There are so many questions and so many doubts arising out of what has turned out to be a big disaster for the image of Delhi, which is known to be the capital city of one of the largest democracies in the world. So much for democracy really.

For those interested in and working on sustainability, I’d say that this whole controversy on CWG in Delhi is hinting at a fundamental level problem about which something can be done, and that is, that perhaps there is a lack of understanding (or complete misunderstanding altogether) on important sustainability issues and consequent prioritization of initiatives, funds and efforts, whether out of choice or ignorance. Put differently, it leaves one wondering whether we are all on the same page when we talk about sustainable development and if we really know what the key priorities and levers for success are before launching our local & national level strategies. Over the next few weeks, I will write on the same lines on what I think should have been done in Delhi in retrospect to gear up for the Games. Optimistically speaking, the present state of affairs might have been necessary to serve as a reality check for India to re-orient its thought process and jump on a new learning curve that is better aligned with the development needs specific to the country.

[To exactly know what I am talking about perhaps it’ll be a good idea to look at some pictures of CWG in Delhi -]

- Guest post by Gunita Bajaj

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