NEW DELHI: It’s not just the Commonwealth Games facilities that India’s embattled government is trying to spruce up. It’s the whole country.
While authorities race against time to clean up the Games athletes village, blighted by everything from filthy toilets to rogue King Cobra snakes, officials are battling to showcase India’s capital as a modern, clean city and the gateway to an emerging Asian power.
India wants the Games to highlight the modern face of this ancient land – new highways, a metro extension, sports venues and a $2 billion international airport.
But it is also spending a lot of time, money and effort papering over many of the problems that have plagued the nation for centuries, ranging from beggars to child labourers, rickety old buses to slums in the middle of posh neighbourhoods.
Before the Games, many children could be seen working at construction sites, like millions of others who toil in a variety of industries. But after media controversy over their role in the Games, hardly any can be seen at the sites now.
Homeless people who sleep on pavements yards from luxury south Delhi homes that are near Games venues have also suddenly disappeared. For years they have slept by roads and many have been killed by careless, late-night drivers on poorly lit roads. Beggars, who often knock on car windows with deformed limbs, have been mostly banished from main streets of New Delhi. Newspapers report that many have been sent to makeshift tents on city outskirts, a move the police deny.
On Monday, authorities took more than 1,000 old and rickety buses off the roads. These packed, fast-moving vehicles are infamous for their record of running over pedestrians, sparking a media campaign against them, but their removal infuriated many residents, stuck from getting to work.
In fact, the whole clean-up campaign has been met with disdain by some Delhi residents. “It’s all the same, no better, more problems,” said Ravi Sikka, a rickshaw driver living in Delhi for 49 years.
“Construction is a big problem, the removals of buses is a big problem for people. The Commonwealth Games has been a bad thing for Delhi. ” Be nice, don’t unrinate the Games” had been touted as India’s “coming out” party, much like the 2008 Beijing Olympics were for economic rival China, which also tried to show its capital at it best by removing roadside slums, sprucing up gardens and restricting traffic to reduce pollution among other measures.
In India, even some brothels have received a slick of paint, while air-conditioners and LCD television have also been introduced, according to media reports. Other prostitutes said police were locking them up for the Games.
“We don’t expect to see more people over the Commonwealth Games as the police have said they will push them away from here,” said Kavita, a sex worker, speaking from a dank, cramped brothel where some two dozen prostitutes work in Delhi.
India’s ubiquitous three-wheeler rickshaws are banned from many Games venues and some drivers, mostly from poor regions of India, are planning to return home and spent the Games with family due to a clamp down on business.
In a country where spitting, burping and urinating in public are commonplace and where littering is rife, a government campaign has roped in Bollywood actor Aamir Khan to ask Indians to improve their manners.
TV adverts show Indians urinating in public, spitting and in once case throwing a banana skin out of the window. Each time, a foreign tourist looks on – shocked.
Kiran Bedi, former police chief in Delhi and now social activist, wrote a book called “Broom and Groom” urging people to improve their civic sense in the year of the Commonwealth Games.
In what perhaps symbolised the sudden effort to clean up India’s image, placards with the cuddly Tiger mascot of the Games have been place in front of slums and run-down housing in many parts of the city.
Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit said the placards were to give Delhi a “festive look” and some people agreed. “Overall, Delhi is looking nicer,” said Naveen Rao, a stylish travel agent in Connaught Place, one of the centres of Delhi. The area has looked like a building site for months in an effort to renovate the former colonial British buildings.
Updated from print edition (below)
Commonwealth Games troubles continue
The Commonwealth Games’ ordeal continued after a snake was reportedly found in an athletes’ village room as complaints over cleanliness, security and construction continued to cast doubts on the Games being staged in New Delhi from October 3.
While officials stated that the situation improved in the village, athletes continued to pull out from the event due to security and health concerns. South Africa showed their discontent and threatened to boycott the Games if things were not sorted out soon.
“We can’t go and stay till things are fixed up. We have very grave concerns. If snakes are found we can’t ask our teams to stay there,” said South Africa’s High Commissioner Harris Mbulelo Mejeke.
Earlier, Indian boxer Akhil Kumar was floored by a collapsing bed at the village. Kumar, a diminutive bantamweight who fights in the 56kg category, ended up on the canvas in his room in the much-criticised village. “I sat down on my bed to rest but suddenly it gave way. After that I noticed that part of it has no plywood,” said Kumar.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s Elena Baltacha joined the growing list of absentees when she withdrew citing fears over her health. “I suffer from a liver condition which is linked to my immune system and makes me susceptible to picking up infections. At 27 and after years of hard work, I am playing the best tennis of my career and I cannot afford to jeopardise that by getting ill,” said Baltacha, joining compatriot Andy Murray, Cyprus’s Marcos Baghdatis as well as Australians Lleyton Hewitt and Samantha Stosur in opting out of the Games.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 27th, 2010.