Thursday, July 29, 2010

Big money, big mess (July 30, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

For a person who is so unmistakably Anglo-Saxon by temperament, Mani Shankar Aiyar has never been partial to the understatement. Whether in private or in his public utterances, this "man of letters" (an unlikely honour accorded to him by an equally unlikely judge of the arts) has packaged his undeniable wit in reckless hyperbole, an impishness that once prompted me to describe him as the Beast of Myladuthurai—a recondite allusion to a character from juvenile literature of another age.

Ever since he came into public gaze as a functionary of the Prime Minister's Office way back in 1985, Mani has provided hours of amusement to all those who appreciate his brand of adult puerility. Unfortunately, Mani has a niche appeal and his wit has invited the righteous indignation of those not fortunate to have been raised on a diet of Carry On films and Kooler Talk. The weightier bits of Mani's interventions have been obscured by his merciless asides.

So it was with his spontaneous outburst against the Commonwealth Games, due to be hosted by Delhi in October. Having decried the thousands of crores being wasted on such "circuses", Mani fell back on Biblical imagery to suggest that "Those who are patronising the Games can only be Evil. They cannot be God." But it was his coup de grace that had the CWG officialdom reaching for their guns: "I will be very unhappy if the Games are successful because they will start bringing Asian Games, Olympic Games…" An incensed boss of the Indian Olympic Association Suresh Kalmadi, the prime target of Mani's ire, responded by calling him "anti-national", a charge that in public discourse is almost akin to questioning the marital status of one's parents.

If Mani had been playing the loose cannon yet again, his intervention would have been treated with the familiar Mani-is-Mani refrain. Unfortunately for the Government, and despite his characteristic overkill, Mani's gripe touched a responsive chord in a Delhi has been mute witness to an orgy of inept and profligate spending of taxpayers' money. In normal circumstances, the media and the political class have voiced the disquiet of citizens. In the case of the CWG, blessed with a mega-Budget of unimaginable proportions, there have been scattered voices against particular projects—the renovation of bus shelters in roads where buses don't run, the re-paving of perfectly decent pavements, the slipshod finishing of sporting venues, et al. Sadly, these haven't been accompanied by any dissection of the event in its totality. The reasons for this lapse are a matter of conjecture.

Mani's contribution lay in being bold enough to say that the Emperor has no clothes. Had he not done it aplomb and polemical exaggeration, no one would have taken notice. Now the growing scepticism over the CWG can't be ignored. In riding his socialistic hubby horse, he has unwittingly created a window of opportunity for a widespread expression of disgust.

Beginning from the Berlin Olympics of 1936, international sporting events have become the occasion for countries and their governments to showcase themselves to the wider world. Yet, to succeed, official endeavours have to be accompanied by a huge measure of popular involvement, the Sydney Olympics of 2004 and even the just-concluded soccer World Cup in South Africa being case studies of purposeful harmony. What is striking about the Delhi CWG is the marked alienation of local citizens from an event that is also aimed at leaving behind a tangible legacy for the future.

Part of the reason lies in the sheer arbitrariness that marked the decision-making over civic improvements. In normal democratic societies, the re-fashioning of a city ought to have been preceded by widespread consultations between planners, local authorities and civil society. In the case of Delhi, tardiness at the initial stages led to a flurry of rushed decisions that left no time to observe the niceties of consultation. Whereas the objective of civic improvements should have been to create a better city, the late start meant that the completion of projects by October 2010 became the sole criterion. The inevitable consequence was a series of decisions that post-CWG Delhi may well come to regret.

The rush to meet an inflexible deadline has, of course, resulted in shoddy civil works that could result in some of the sports complexes becoming unusable in a year's time. But more galling has been the overhead route of the Delhi Metro that runs precariously close to residential areas, schools and even hospitals. Equally offensive has been the systematic felling of trees, the destruction of storm water drains and the questionable aesthetics of beautification. From being a city of parks, Delhi is in danger of becoming a city of parking lots.

This celebration of brashness isn't confined to the murder of aesthetics alone; it has a bearing on public finances. When the NDA Government cleared the proposal to bid for the CWG, it was said that the cost would be Rs 150 crore. To enhance the quality of the bid, the figure was raised to nearly Rs 1,900 crore. Some cost over-runs were predictable—the cost of hosting the London Olympics in 2012 has risen fourfold from £2.3 billion to £9.4 billion—and dependant on the scale of the legacy projects. In the case of the CWG, there is a mystery over the actual costs with estimates ranging from Rs 30,000 crore to Rs 50,000 crore.

How much of this money has been judiciously spent to create tangible assets for the future? Scepticism is justified when people see perfectly decent pavements in Lutyens' Delhi being uprooted for something new and then new one being again uprooted because someone forgot the drains or the water pipes. If there is a subsequent audit, it will reveal innumerable horror stories, enough to keep the ubiquitous CBI busy for years to come. If there isn't, the CWG will set a new benchmark of brazenness.

The CWG will have beneficiaries. Regrettably, it won't be the people of Delhi.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, July 30, 2010

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