Dialogue  July-September,  2010, Volume 12 No.1

The XIX Commonwealth Games, Delhi: Celebrating Slavery

J.N. Roy

The XIX Commonwealth Games (CWG) at Delhi (Oct 3-14 – 2010) has been mired in controversy ever since it was approved by the NDA govt. in 2003. Besides, the desirability of holding the CWG, India’s sporting credentials to hold one, to the legitimacy of the bid and the manner in which the bid was won; the budgeting sleight of hand, it has been a continuous saga of one scandal or controversy after the other. According to the Sports Minster in Parliament (30.7.2010) the budget has gone up 17.5 times from 655 crores in 2003 to 11494 crores at present and still counting. Shri Jaipal Reddy MOS Urban Dev mentioned a cost of Rs. 28054 crores including money being spent by Delhi govt. on infrastructure. From the initial understanding that the CWG 2010 will be held at New Delhi at no cost to the govt., it has become a financial albatross. The fact is that its now open ended and no one knows how much it will cost ultimately. 

      2. The delays, cash overruns, profligacy in pricing, alleged corruption and scams from the Baton Relay Function in London to award of commission to SMAM (now contract cancelled) even on sponsor amounts by the PSU’s and adverse media reports have brought the games in disrepute even before if has begun. The govt. intervention on the one hand and appeal to nations pride have been an inevitable but unconvincing outcome. The Indian ingenuity (Jugad) and the govt. support will see the games through, but just by the whisker. However one thing is uncontested. No event Olympic, Asian or others have received so much pre-game notoriety as this one has.

    Yet it must be stated at the outset itself that the decisions to hold such mega events are taken on several considerations and not merely financial. Hence these are difficult to make and relate mainly to prestige, stature and advantage. CWG hardly makes the grade in any respect.

      3. The state of affairs and credibility quotient are the best summed, by the statements of the PM and Mike Hooper; the CEO of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF). The PM in a statement on Sept 6 (TOI – 7.9.2010) stated “I do admit there have been delays and lapses and delays which should have been avoided”. He added “now we should do all we can to put up a show that India can feel proud of”. As on allegations of corruption, the PM said “I agree there should be better utilisation of tax payer’s money”. The same day Mike Hooper on being handed over completion (occupation) certificates of games venues by Organising Committee (OC) commented that he hoped that the documents provided to him were “legitimate” (TOI – 7.9.2010). The main point which many miss is that while almost all (very few private sponsorships) the funds for the games were to come from the govt. and PSU coffers, the management, till the govt intervened, was totally in the hands of an Organising Committee (OC) consisting of people who were known for their political patronage, vested interests, manipulative skills, and doubtful reputation. Pargat Singh an aspirant for the Hockey India (HI) Presidentship publicly alleged that Suresh Kalmadi, the Chairman of the OC and President of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) represented the “Sports Mafia” in the country when latter approached him for a deal. The allegation was neither refuted nor was Pargat legally charged for defamation. These were the people handling huge budgets and onerous management challenges. Efforts by HLRN (an NGO) to get copies of studies conducted by the PCW, KPMG and Ms. A Sharma & Co, through RTI did not succeed.

      4. Infact we shouldn’t be wasting our time chasing various kinds of allegations. Some basic questions need to be asked concerning the very rationale of holding the Games (CWG) and spending thousands of crores of a poor country. Its not only the money part, but the very credentials of the CWG as an international competition and our own sporting credentials to hold it and celebrate it. The fact is that the CWG is not a highly rated event and is the weakest of the three events with which we are concerned, the other two being the Olympics and the Asian Games. No wonder even top athletes and sportsmen of the Commonwealth countries avoid it (as is happening to Delhi Games) as it contributes nothing to their international sporting profile. It has almost the status in International sports arena, the equivalant of an “inter-state” competion in India. Yet we consider it a great honour to host it, and if Mani Shnakar Aiyer, the former Sports Minister is to be believed, bribed to win the bid.  Even the Queen who is its patron has not deemed it important enough to attend the Delhi games as in the past.

      Then we have hardly any worthwhile sporting credentials to organise this extravaganza. In any international competition, the track and field events are considered prestigious than the rest like, weightlifting, shooting, hockey, archery, etc. In Olympic we have not won a single medal, gold, silver or bronze in track and field events. Even in the weakest of CWG, the only track field gold came in 1958 when Milkha Singh won the 400 meters race. The rest have been five silvers and three bronze. Of the 22 gold medals won in 2006 CWG, 17 came from shooting. In 2006 Asian games we again won 10 gold and were 8th in medal tally.

    Much smaller nations have better record. We a nation of over a billion have no  self-esteem. We are not ashamed to celebrate a bronze medal in weightlifting in 2000 Sydney Olympics; a silver in shooting in 2004 Athens Olympics and finally a gold in 2008 Beijing Olympics again in shooting. China withdrew from international events in seventies for ten years and concentrated in improving its sports infra-structure and capabilities. It is today the real sports power-house and no 2 in the world.        

      5.  As regards, the ethical and moral question of spending over Rs. 28000 crores in a country where over 350 million are struggling to survive (below poverty line) on games of low credential and imperial past should worry concerned citizens. Its being accepted more as a fait accompli  than a desirable venture. Appeals to patriotism and national pride only invite derisive reaction from the well informed citizens. The minimal level of people’s involvement and participation is too palpable to be ignored. This aspect is amply summed up in two perceptive write-ups. M.J. Akbar in his piece (TOI – 1.8.2010) “The ultimate games of also-rans” – wrote “The CWG is the ultimate competition of also-rans”. He further added that the games were never about sports, but an opportunity for the ruling class to spend vast sums of the national exchequer in the name of national prestige and spend it on just those few parts of India’s capital where the elite lives”.

       6.  Azim Premji, the doyen of Indian Industry in a sensitive piece (TOI – 26-8-2010) felt disconcerted by the magnitude of the money spent (nearly 28000 crores), questioned if this drain on public funds was for the greater common good? He posits his argument in the ground reality of India being a poor country and the moral and ethical dimensions of priorities of our public policy. Questioning the logic of spending such huge sums in relatively well off Delhi, where over 1,00,000 labourers from poor state of Bihar and elsewhere worked on sub-minimum wages, unsafe conditions and housed in sub-human tenements. While criticising over 500 crores (infact 600 crores) in renovating the JN Stadium which would have built basic sports facilities in thousands of schools, he admits that “in real terms, such choices are not at all that easy to make”. While commending many govt. initiatives in social welfare and inclusive development like MNREGA, Employment Guarantee Act and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan etc., he asserts that the consideration of equity and inclusion, must underlie each and every policy decision. He adds “let me suggest that all public policy must recognise the GDP growth is meaningless if it does not uplift the most underprivileged of our country”. He strongly felt that this Rs. 28000 crores could have been used to set up primary schools and health centres in thousands of villages. He finally asks “can we ignore this splurge the next time a malnourished child looks us in the eye?” This underlines the moral and ethical dimension of the CWG and Delhi infrastructure we boast of. Add to the splurge the fact that 56 schools in Delhi are run in tents and over 900 crores including a tunnel is spent on refurbishing of an existing J.N. Stadium. 70 crore worth Aerostat which is described a “technological marvel” is not from India but UK. Over Rs. 108.28 crores (and more) was spent on streetscaping and beautification. (RTI-HLRN).    

     Whether the holding of the games was a worthwhile choice or not will remain debatable. However it is the ethical and moral dimension of it, if comprehended in detail will keep haunting a concerned citizen. Apart from the contention that Rs. 16000 crore spent on improving the infra-structure in Delhi, like, airport, metro, flyovers, roads, relaying of pavements etc, would in any case have happened, begs a larger issue of the scale, timing, corruption etc and relatively affluent areas which have benefitted. Even larger than these is the moral dimension of the exploitation of the poor, who constituted the labour force of over one lakh in these worksites. (A writ in Delhi High Court claimed 37000 workers). They came from the poorer countryside of Bihar, M.P. Rajasthan, UP and West Bengal. The provisions of labour laws, Contract Labour Act; Delhi Building and other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Rules 2002 etc., were violated. Several NGO’s went to court, but the excuse that were not registered (why not) was trotted out. Eventually only about 5000 workers were shown as registered, but even they got their due is uncertain. A good number of the workers were with families and children and entitled to other legal benefits. Child Rights and You (CRY) an NGO which studied the plight of children of the labour went to court, which on Sept. 15, 2010  issued notices to authorities including the OC of the CWG. In all this the connivance of the authorities under the influence of contractors is palpable and implicit. These efforts to get a fair deal to the labour came too late and that also by the efforts of NGO’s. Exploitation of workers and violation of their Human Rights is an incontrovertible fact. Add to it the human cost of driving the poor and the deprived out of streets and out of sight in the name of beautification and hiding the reality pf poverty from the visitors. It is said that the present opulence, mansions and infra-structure and the glitter of Dubai has been built by the sweat labour of South Asia. The grand CWG infra-structure in Delhi can, boast of similar origin of the sweat of voiceless, vulnerable, poor labour force. It speaks volumes about our public morality and inclusive governance, particularly of the Delhi govt. At the same level the forced vacation of 2500 hostel rooms, without making any alternative arrangements for the affected students, who had already deposited fees, is questionable. Surprise is that neither the students nor the varsity authorities protested. Similarly over 200 doctors from various hospital have been dragooned for CWG duties without any benefits of food or travel costs. It all boils down to a mindset.            

      7. The allegations of corruption and mismanagement, and morality of spending such vast sums, have become the main topic of public discourse. It helps in diverting attention from the larger issues afflicting the sports establishment and administration in India. The can of worms which has opened in connection with the Games is symptomatic of what ails the nation’s sports and how it is managed as a patronage system where the office-bearers of the India Olympic Association (IOA) and various federations and officials are more important than the sports itself and the sportsmen. Its all about officials, their fiefdoms, cronies and privileges that go with it. No wonder, most of the sports federations, including the IOA, attract the politicians (earlier bureaucrats also) like flies to the honey-pot and they stick to it for decades and long years. Thus when we talk of corruption and mismanagement, that is implicit in the very structure of the sports management in the country, protected and nurtured by the vested interests and illegitimate fig leaf of sports autonomy. Autonomy implies accountability, transparency and professionalism. 

   An enumeration of the longevity of these worthies in office is instructive. Shri Ashwani Kumar (now nearly 90 years old) was member of the International Olympic Association for 27 years till 2001; President Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) for 16 years and was elected life President of Indian Olympic Association. Shri Randhir Singh, who won an Asian gold medal in shooting long back, is Secretary-General of the Indian Olympic Asian (IOA) since 1987 (23 years by now); Secretary-General of  the Olympic Council of Asia since 1991 (19 years by now) and member of the International Olympic Association since 2001, when Ashwani Kumar retired. Shri Suresh Kalmadi MP (Congress) is the President Indian Olympic Association since 1996. He is also President of Asian Athletic Association. He was trying to become President of Hockey India also but the CWG controversy stopped him Shri V.K. Malhotra MP (BJP) is Sr. Vice-President of IOA and President of the Archery Association for over two decades. Shri V.K. Verma is President of Badminton Association of India for over 12 years and has recently been re-elected in defiance of govt. guidelines. Shri Ajay Chautala (INLD) is President of the Table Tennis Federation and his brother Abhay Chautala (INLD) heads the Boxing Association. Vidya Stokes MP (Cong) in July this year was elected President of Hockey India (HI) in violation of govt. guidelines being over 70 years in age. If one goes through the list of 41 members of IOA, it is a veritable list of powerful politicians representing either the national sports federations or the state Olympic Associations. It includes – Tarun Gogoi CM Assam, N. Rio, CM Nagaland, Sharad Pawar President ICC and Union Minister, Praful Patel Union Minister, Yashwant Sinha MP (BJP), Jagdish Tytler , J.S. Gehlot, K.P. Singh Deo and a host of state ministers. Add to it the politicians in the cash rich and powerful Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI), which boasts of a bevy of chief ministers and active politicians of all parties, viz, congress, NCP, BJP, NC, RJD et al completes the picture. These are powerful bodies dispensing funds and patronage. No one would grudge them their long innings if they could answer one straight question. How far have the sporting credentials of the country progressed or regressed under their regime. Hockey, where we were the best in the world are now also rans. Athletics we are scraping the bottom. Where is the accountability? One interesting point is that all the parties who fight outside have cozy relationship in IOA and BCCI. Nobody wants to upset the gravy train.  Considering the clout of these sports officials assurances that the allegations of the corruption in CWG will be pursued after the Games are over would at best be an eye wash and at the worst a prolonged one till the public memory fades.               

    8.  Any effort to hold the sports officials accountable is resisted using pressure and unified protests, including the use of International Olympic Association (IOA) threats on spurious grounds of autonomy. However, their autonomy is not affected when they all survive on govt. grants. When the sports minister tried to fix tenures and age limit of the office-bearers of IOA and sports federations they unitedly opposed it, cutting across party lines as nothing unites even the incompatibles like the lucre of privilege and patronage. The Hockey India and Badminton Association of India held elections in defiance of sensible and well-meaning govt. guidelines. In brief, less said the better of our sports federations. It’s the only country which had two Presidents of the IOA in Beijing Asian Games causing embarrassment to the organisers. Their interest in promoting sports is implicit in the fact that a country of over one billion has not won a single Olympic medal in track and field events. An instance will exemplify the mindset of sports officials of India that they are more important than the game and sportsmen themselves. When the Indian cricket team won the first T-20, world championships in South Africa in 2008, it was given a reception by the BCCI in a Mumbai Stadium. The front-seats were occupied by the Board members/officials and the players, who won the trophy, were half-visible in the back rows and jostling for space. The message was clear. Its the BCCI officials who had won the trophy. This mind set pervades the whole of sports management and the results are for every body to see.

       9.  Besides, the low status of the CWG, there is even a more important consideration for not being the part of the Game. What dos the CWG represent? It’s a conglomerate of the ex-colonies of the British Crown and Great Britain and a successor of the pre-Independence Empire Games. It seems to be a psychological device to remind the ex-colonies of their past viz – part of the former British Empire and ex-slaves and thus bound to the new concept of the British Commonwealth. There may have been some advantage in the beginning or may be not, but now down the sixty years of freedom what is the connection and the glue? The enthusiastic adherence to the concept of commonwealth is not only questionable but is also demeaning. Why?

      10.  The very concept of the CWG militates against the self-respect of any country. The British crown as its head reminds you of your colonial past and slavery to the crown. Otherwise why not other countries head the organisation by rotation? While the Olympic has as its symbol the Torch; the Asian Games the flame, the CWG has King’s or Queen’s Baton. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the meaning of baton viz “a staff of office or authority”. Symbolism is appropriate for the ex-slaves, even if it has lost the substance. Yet our CWG OC spent Rs 6 crores in organising the “Queen’s Baton Relay” in London for its handing over. The President of the Republic of India was inveigled into receiving the Baton herself from the Queen which could have been done by the President of IOA, and avoided the denigration of the elected head of India. Has it happened in the past? The VIP’s, Governors, CM’s, officials and sportsmen were falling over each other to hold the Baton, when it was taken around the country to promote a questionable, game. No one, even with a semblance of self-esteem, paused to think (except CM of M.P.) as to what are you celebrating? Is it the symbol of your past or linkage to your continued mental and sporting subservience? More than unpardonable waste of money of a poor country on an elitist megapolis, the most important question is as to what still binds us to the symbols of the British Empire? A few medals, as we can perhaps win a few only in ordinary CWG or the intellectual poverty? Every proud Indian must introspect and decide. We talk of the national pride being at stake in holding a successful CWG at Delhi. It equates the national pride with the celebration of symbols of our slavery. It may seem to our liberals a rather narrow way of looking at things and being unusually touchy. But symbolism is an important component of national pride. Allegations of corruptions mismanagement etc have nothing to do with it. It goes deeper to our inner-self as a nation and as to how we define our pride in our nationhood? Certainly not by celebrating the symbols of slavery and our humiliating past. The usefulness or otherwise of our links with the commonwealth at the political and international relations levels may be debated and analysed, but at the CWG level the symbolism and the structure itself is demeaning and not worth associating with. Its not a commonwealth of equals – but of a past ruler and the ruled. The English language is the only thing of substance linking us and let us leave it at that. Nothing more. 


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati