It is hard to comprehend why our national media is displaying so much shock and outrage with banner headlines like Commonwealth Games, India's Shame, as if something extraordinary has happened in India. Is it because they had earlier swallowed the pompous claims made by the Government that Delhi would host the most spectacular games ever, that the CWG preparations would transform it into a world class city and showcase India as an emerging global power, a top notch tourist destination? The media played along till such time as it became obvious that despite having spent thousands of crores, we have a disaster on our hands.
Until a few weeks ago, many in the media made common cause with Sports Minister M S Gill and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, both of whom tirelessly sermonised us that all of us must put in their bit to make the Commonwealth games a success and celebrate it as a big festival, since making the event work well was a matter of "national honour and pride". The Art of Living guru was roped in to make a huge song and dance about mobilising citizens to pick up garbage in their respective neighborhoods and clean up the stinking filth choking banks of Yamuna - with the slogan Meri Dilli, Meri Shaan -(My Delhi, My Pride).
History is replete with examples of how the most venal and corrupt among politicians tend to wrap themselves in the national flag in order to cover their misdeeds. If we were to do an honest cost-benefit analysis and audit, we will discover that for our politicians and bureaucrats every infrastructure project, every poverty alleviation program, every hydro electric project, every mining lease is mainly about loot of public resources. That is why no power project, no development or welfare program delivers more than a small fraction of what it promises. The Games are no different - their main purpose has been served. Money has reached safely in the accounts of those it was meant to. The rest was incidental. Those in charge of organising know very well . Games ho gayein to thheek, nahin to na sahi! (If the Games take place fine, if not, so be it.).
Ordinary citizens, however, are not surprised or shocked by collapsing bridges, roofs falling off, leaking stadia, filthy toilets, stagnant water pools for breeding mosquitoes around the Games Village because we knew that our Government would deliver its "best performance". What are the arts our politicians and bureaucrats are 'best' at? Corruption, mismanagement, working at cross purposes to mess up whatever they undertake, shameless delays, callousness, and the ability to remain unruffled even when people are angry enough to want to publicly lynch them!
History is replete with examples of how the most venal and corrupt among politicians tend to wrap themselves in the national flag in order to cover their misdeeds. (Above: Workers get into a manhole to clean blocked sewage in Delhi, without even the most basic protective equipment.)
Why are we ashamed at leaking roofs shoddy construction and squalor around the Games village? All our ministerial buildings, government offices, government-built housing complexes are witness to the sarkari genius of creating slummy conditions even after spending crores. Think of the wretched flats we all queue up to buy from DDA. Why should DDA feel obliged to behave very differently for a two-week tamasha?
National pride or bruised vanity?
The corruption and mismanagement of CWG has only recently and temporarily become a cause célèbre with the media and a section of the urban elite because they have developed delusions of grandeur and learned to mistake their own growing prosperity, wealth and clout with 'national progress.' They feel let down because their new found and fragile 'national pride' is being given a massive drubbing in front of foreigners, the only ones they wish to impress, but don't really know how to.
Their 'national pride' was not wounded when the jhuggis of lakhs of urban self-employed poor who provide us valuable services as masons, carpenters, rickshaw pullers, mechanics, road side barbers, cooks, maalis, cleaners, garbage pickers, tailors and a host of poorly paid craftsmen were demolished with vengeance in order to "beautify" Delhi for the Games. We dare not show the world the subhuman conditions in which the hard working poor of India are condemned to live. So better remove them from sight. This could happen only because the urban elite applaud every time slums are demolished and urban poor face clearance operations.
Their 'national pride' was not wounded when lakhs of poor street vendors from whom we buy our vegetables, fruits and other daily necessities were hounded out of Delhi through brute police action just so that Delhi could look "world class". This despite the fact that the National Policy for Street Vendors adopted by the Central Cabinet way back in 2004 mandates that street vendors should not be evicted under the guise of beautification. Instead, hawking zones should be included in the city's rejuvenation plans. The modest gains made by Manushi in the last 15 years seeking policy reform for street vendors, including legalizing their status, went down the drain as we witnessed lakhs of vendors forced out of Delhi and their stalls razed to the ground, their goods confiscated through the most illegal means. The MCD and Delhi Police did not spare even those who had valid licenses.
Their 'national pride' was not hurt to see the miserable conditions under which men, women and children who were brought in from impoverished villages to work for constructing the CWG infrastructure were forced to work and live. They too will be seen as unwanted nuisance and in all probability beaten out of Delhi once their purpose is served.
Their 'national pride' was not hit when we saw the city government install view-cutter walls to hide from view large parts of Delhi, including middle and lower middle class neighborhoods, lest the delegates witness the dilapidated civic infrastructure and piles of garbage that characterize Indian cities, including the national capital.
Their 'national pride' was not touched when large tracts of the Yamuna flood plains were illegally taken over by the powerful political mafia of Delhi to build the Games Village, in clear violation of environmental laws. The Delhi High Court had ruled that the construction of the Games Village on the flood plains of Yamuna was ecologically unsound and violated all possible environmental laws of the country. However, the kingpins behind the CWG bonanza bulldozed their way through and got a Supreme Court bench to give a go ahead.
The hoopla of 'national pride' and the jingoism surrounding the Games gave them a grand opportunity for a massive land grab operation by converting the flood plains of the Yamuna into prime real estate. They don.t care if the Games Village is ready in time for the sportspersons for whom it was ostensibly built. They are just waiting for end of October so that these flats can be sold for several crores each or gifted to their patrons.
Nor is all this just about the CWG and Delhi. The 'national pride' of the urban elite is routinely unhurt when thousands of poor people and their children die every year from a host of easily preventable diseases like malaria, diarrhea and jaundice . all due to the appalling insanitary conditions prevailing in the country. We invoke national pride only when dengue threatens to mar the games because mosquitoes cannot tell the difference between Indians and foreigners. We squirm only when foreign governments issue advisories to their citizens warning them against health hazards in Delhi and recommend that they keep their mouths tightly sealed when taking a shower lest they swallow a couple of drops of polluted, disease ridden water supplied by our municipal agencies.
Their 'national pride' remains intact despite our rivers, including those like Ganga and Yamuna believed to be sacred symbols of our ancient culture and civilization, are converted into filthy disgusting sewers . with municipalities pouring all our domestic and industrial sewage into them. Our pride is hurt only when we realise belatedly that foreign participants will witness the filth-laden river, its banks overflowing with garbage providing a happy breeding ground for mosquitoes and other disease bugs.
A few months ago, when the Sports Minister saw how much foul smell emanated from Yamuna and how wretched it looked, he had suggested in all seriousness that the government should considering covering up the river in order to hide it from public view!
Glitzy signage touting the Games is actually a view cutter, shielding the eyes of tourists and athletes from the harsh reality of Delhi's jhuggis.
Safety and well-being
The Australian discus champion said it all when she said she has decided to withdraw her participation because the CWG represents a potential threat to her safety, health and well being. The bald truth is, our ruling establishment and governance machinery represent the most lethal threat to the collective well being, safety and health of all Indians. No wonder people are today seriously proposing that we outsource governance.
It is time we asked ourselves:
Can a country become tourism friendly if it is hostile to its own citizens?
Can a country become a global power if its ruling elite and its governance machinery are at constant war with its own people?
Can a country provide safety to foreign tourists if its own police have become the biggest threat to safety and well being of its own people?
Can a country become world class if its government awakens to the need for basic civic amenities like usable motorable roads, footpaths and street lights only for impressing foreign visitors and that too only in those parts of the city which lead to select stadia?
Can a country provide a safe and healthy environment for tourists if it does not do so for its own citizens?
Can the municipal sweepers deliver world class cleanliness and hygiene at the Games Village if they have never been properly trained nor given the requisite equipment for routine cleaning of the City?
Can a country be attractive to tourists if the Government needs to hide the living conditions of the vast majority of its people from international gaze?
Can a country be tourism worthy, if its rivers are so foul that they deserve to be hidden from public view?
Instead of indulging in pious harangues against the publicly visible faces of this scam, the all important lesson to be learnt from the CWG disaster is that health, wellbeing and safety are indivisible. (Above: A child asleep at a squalid construction site, as office-goers walk by on the road.)
Instead of indulging in pious harangues against the publicly visible faces of this scam, the all important lesson to be learnt from the CWG disaster is that health, wellbeing and safety are indivisible. Those who think they can create islands of prosperity and safety for themselves or for videshi tourists better realise that mosquitoes and disease bugs cannot be kept out of our lives by building gated communities. Those who believe the 'image' of India can change without a marked improvement in the lived reality of its impoverished and brutalised citizens only end up making us a laughing stock of the world.
Let us not confuse pride with vanity. Let us learn to be proud of the right things. That will happen only when we have the courage to be ashamed of the
callousness with which our government treats its own people, and the imperial indifference of the social elites to the wretched plight of most Indians.