India’s Games of Shame

Delhi is an anxious city this monsoon season, struggling to meet an onerous deadline. Preparations continue at a feverish pace for the 19th Commonwealth Games (CWG), which will bear down on the Indian metropolis October 3-14, along with some 8,500 athletes from the 71 states and territories that were once part of the British Empire.


Around-the-clock construction and spells of heavy monsoon rain have turned Delhi into a swirl of mud and scaffolding. Since early June, moreover, news of delays and corruption has added scandal to the mix. (Preliminary findings of the Central Vigilance Commission indicate that contracts were awarded at higher than reasonable prices to shady agencies and that the quality of work in many projects has been seriously compromised.) The chair of the CWG organizing committee, Suresh Kalmadi, remains convinced, however, that something spectacular is around the corner. On the horizon, or so Delhi's residents have been repeatedly told, is the transformation of India's congested national capital into a "world class city," worthy not only of hosting this prestigious sporting event, but of India's growing reputation as Asia's next superpower.


This hubris-laden dream is a familiar one. It is well-known that countries compete fiercely to host global mega-events such as the Olympics and Expos. These "urban spectacles" are used to enhance a country and city's global recognition, image, and status, and to push through controversial policies that may otherwise linger in the pending file for years. It is easier to undercut local opposition under the pressure of a fixed deadline and the international spotlight. Often, however, the reforms involved in "re-branding" a city amount to a giant subsidy to tourists and globally-connected urban elites at the expense of the poor. Delhi's CWG, a case in point, is being used to invigorate an elite-driven program of urban change that will endure well beyond the 12 days assigned to sporting competition.


Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Delhi—photo by Bhaumik J, wikimedia commons


The price-tag for Delhi's planned transformation is staggering, especially in a country that ranks 134th in the UN's Human Development Index and where 77 percent of the population lives on less than 50 cents a day. The budget for the CWG has ballooned from an initial projected $440 million in 2003 to an official figure of $2.5 billion, an estimate that excludes the cost of non-sports-related infrastructure development (such as the expansion of the Delhi Metro), most of which will be borne by the Delhi government. Estimates by independent experts are much higher, in the range of $6 billion. According to a report by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN)—an arm of the global movement Habitat International Coalition—the total expenditure on infrastructure, "beautification" projects, and security is unknown, but could likely be tens of billions of dollars. Where will this money go once various corrupt officials and contractors have claimed their share?


Islands of Privilege, Monuments to Vanity


Among the changes specific to the CWG is an extravagant renovation of existing sports venues—Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, overhauled by a German engineering firm, now resembles a mammoth spacecraft—and the construction of a 118-acre Games Village along the river Yamuna, which Kalmadi assures will be "the best Games Village in the world, perhaps better than the Olympic Village at Beijing." Other items include new arenas for tennis, wrestling, and shooting. Following the CWG, many of these venues will be turned into profit-making ventures managed by private companies, thus limiting their use by the general public. Stadiums built for the Asian Games of 1982 are more often used for private Bollywood galas and political rallies than for events that would enhance the sporting or public life of citizens.



Rendering of a gated residential community to be created from the Games Village—graphic from

There is every indication that the Games Village will turn into an exclusive gated community soon after the event. Built on a public-private partnership model between the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and Emaar MGF—a Dubai-based real estate giant experienced in luxury, master-planned townships, the estimated cost of the project is $230.7 million. According to the partnership agreement, the DDA will own one-third of the 1,168 apartments, while Emaar will keep two-thirds, to be sold on the open market. At the time of bidding for the Games, India had proposed that the government's share of the apartments at the Village would be used to house students at Delhi University, thereby partially meeting the severe shortage of student residences on campus. In March 2010, however, MLAs (assemblypersons) associated with the Delhi state government demanded the apartments at discounted rates. Not surprisingly, the Village is now considered too posh for students. In addition to state-of-the-art security and recreational facilities, it will get an upscale shopping complex, a water treatment plant worth $6 million, a "green" power grid worth $8 million, the country's first "green helipad," and a dedicated corridor of Delhi Metro that will connect it with the airport. Many apartments in this "self-contained premium residential community" (as one advertisement proclaims) are already sold out and the going rate for the larger, five-bedroom units is $1 million and beyond.


The Games Village, however, lies at the heart of a much grander program of urban regeneration. Though hard to believe at the moment, given Delhi's rubble-strewn streets, the city is slated for a magnificent makeover, one that will supposedly transform it into a "classy metropolis." Delhi will get wider roads, higher bridges, clover-leaf flyovers, bus corridors, an expanded subway network, and a flashy new airport terminal, cited as the eighth largest in the world. Given that the population of the city is expected to swell to 23 million by 2021, these initiatives may seem reasonable, especially if all the money goes where it should.


However, a new corruption scandal surfaces with each passing day. And even if corruption were not a factor, the renovations underway would fall short of serving the larger public interest, not only because the mad rush to meet pressing deadlines has compromised the quality of many projects. Delhi Metro (the city's rail system) has always catered to the middle classes, linking various islands of privilege, leisure, and consumption, such as shopping malls and private residential enclaves. Its tremendous expansion under the cover of the Games (from 75 to 200 kilometers of track) will only strengthen this inclination.


Delhi's priorities are also laid bare by other aspects of beautification, such as bamboo screens to hide slums and squatter colonies and landscaping projects for the upmarket neighborhoods that surround the main sites of the Games. The budget for beautifying central Delhi's beautiful Lodhi Road is reportedly $3.5 million. The gleaming new airport terminal looms over a dusty landscape littered by dilapidated huts like a monument to vanity. There is little doubt that Delhi's renovation will widen spatial inequalities in the city and worsen the already-poor balance of regional development in India.


Increased Security


The militarization of Delhi is also cause for concern. Security for the Games includes a 14-foot fence around the main stadium, along with food tasters, helicopter surveillance, armed guards, and snipers to protect athletes and their families. (Scotland Yard is reportedly working with Delhi Police to protect British athletes.) As part of a larger security overhaul, 58 important markets and 27 border checkpoints will get CCTV cameras. An automated fingerprint and palm identification system, the first for the country, will be installed at 135 police stations, as well as a high-tech "intelligent traffic management system" in core areas of the city. Delhi Police will also acquire three armored vehicles, making Delhi "the first city in the country to use such vehicles in policing."


Behavioral changes are expected too. The Indian Home Minister has instructed Delhiites to adopt manners that befit residents of "an international city." Their gratitude will no doubt be demanded as they are scanned, probed, and frisked, while the usual specter of terrorism is raised to haunt their steps.


Low rent housing for Delhi University students destroyed to make way for the Games—photo by Sushil Kumar Verma

The HRLN report, cited earlier in this article, has brought to light many worrying social, political, and environmental consequences of the Games. Despite much rhetoric about Delhi's Green Games, the DDA felled 800 trees in order to build 2 CWG stadiums. The land allocated for the Games Village, on the floodplains of the river Yamuna, is widely considered ecologically fragile. It was also known that the project would lead to the eviction of hundreds of families. Construction proceeded, nonetheless, with blessings from India's Supreme Court. Sociologist Amita Baviskar, a leading critic of the CWG, sees such actions as a "land grab: a neat government scam to convert public green spaces into private property."


The HRLN highlights many other instances of disruption and displacement. In 2004, Delhi evicted and relocated more than 35,000 families living along the banks of the Yamuna to make way for a tourism project on land adjacent to the Games Village. Relocation is a euphemism for shunting the poor into the remote peripheries of the city where they face grueling commutes to work and disrupted schooling for their children. Another slum cluster of 368 families was bulldozed to construct a parking lot for the Games. City officials even demolished a night shelter for the homeless last December, a month when temperatures often drop to one or two degrees Celsius. The objective? To grow grass for CWG beautification.


Even worse than the deracination of families and communities, perhaps, is the palpable criminalization of poverty and the poor. The city has adopted a dehumanizing attitude towards beggars, which has resulted in the creation of 13 anti-begging police squads, 12 "zero tolerance" zones, and scores of arbitrary arrests. Street vendors and hawkers have also been cleared off roads, their precarious livelihoods suspended or destroyed. Open-air food stalls have found themselves under fire as purveyors of unhygienic food not fit for foreign tourists.



Delhi University Community for Democracy (UCD) hunger strikers protest CWG privatizations
—photo from


Groups such as the Peoples' Union for Democratic Rights and the Commonwealth Games Citizens for Workers, Women and Children have also drawn attention to the use of child labor at CWG construction sites, and a whole array of labor violations. As a consequence of the construction boom sparked by the CWG, over a million migrant workers have poured into Delhi from neighboring areas in Bihar, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, which are among the poorest in the country, if not the world. Most work without proper documentation for exploitative labor contractors—usually for much less than Delhi's minimum wage of $3 per 8 hours of work. They live in squalid, makeshift roadside camps that lack the most basic amenities. Workers are rarely given safety equipment, such as shoes, helmets, gloves, and safety belts. On the few occasions when these bare essentials are made available, their cost is illegally deducted from the workers' wages. Eighteen on-site injuries and forty-two deaths have been officially reported.


The Desire to Be World Class


Since the early 1990s, when India embarked on a program of neoliberal economic reform, the country's urban areas have become increasingly privatized and fragmented. This is most evident in Delhi and the National Capital Region. Gated communities, private enclaves, and private townships appear to be the way of the future and are separated from the world at large by fences, barbed wire, and 24-hour video surveillance. They have been accompanied by a surge in elaborate shopping malls replete with multiplex cinemas, exclusive bars, and global retail chains.


Shopping malls sport fashionable names, such as Emporio, Metropolitan, and Ambience, while residential enclaves tend to opt for a loftier ideal of European aristocracy: Victoria Gardens, Florence Marvel, Windsor Park. The memorable lexicons of these insulated real estate wonderlands point to the aspirations, imagination, and anxieties of a new, pleasure-seeking middle class that is more at home with the global than the local and that would rather not be reminded of India's deep poverty, which, in many cases, is only a stone's throw away


Middle class citizens groups mainly from India's new managerial and technocratic classes have mounted aggressive campaigns to "cleanse" metropolises, such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata, of "encroachers" and "polluters." Informal economy workers, such as hawkers, vendors, and rickshaw pullers, have been consistently targeted. Scholars such as Partha Chatterjee, Amita Baviskar, Christiane Brosius, and Sanjay Srivastava have documented the rise of such reactionary activism, noting that the new middle class has a far weaker sense of social responsibility towards the underprivileged than the previous generation, who, despite their paternalistic and patronizing attitudes, at least viewed the poor as deserving of development assistance and social welfare. The mood is now one of outright hostility and contempt, with fewer objections to the violent demolition of slums and the blatant exploitation of migrant workers.


The demand for a safe and pristine bourgeois utopia has found mounting support among city officials and the judiciary and is often framed in the language of a "public need" for sanitation, security, and environmental protection. The beautification of freshly cleaned-up promenades, parks, beaches, and waterfronts is typically undertaken with financial support from the corporate sector, with private security firms awarded contracts for the surveillance of freshly cleaned up public spaces. Private firms have also won contracts to repackage sprawling slums—often on prime commercial land—into neatly stacked high-rises. While a small proportion of the slums' inhabitants are awarded cramped apartments in the new buildings, the vast majority are evicted on the basis of arbitrary cut-off dates. The dynamic in play may be thought of as a form of enclosure—what David Harvey terms "accumulation by dispossession"—a process through which assets belonging to the state or community are discharged into the market, prying open new vistas for capitalist development. Urban government, as Christiane Brosius suggests in her perceptive book India's Middle Class, is increasingly "following the patterns of a multinational corporation."


It is hardly surprising, in this context, that India's decision to bid for the Games was not discussed in Parliament. Nor was there any public debate or opinion poll among residents of Delhi. (Even so, the bid document claims that "the entire nation supports the cause of the Games.") In fact, as HRLN points out in its report, the bid decision was approved by the Cabinet in September 2003, only two months prior to the Commonwealth Federation's official announcement that New Delhi had been selected over Hamilton, Ontario as the host city for 2010. It is also not surprising that Jantar Mantar—one of the few spaces in Delhi where democratic protests are legally permitted—has fallen victim to the CWG axe. Last March, Delhi police and city officials dismantled the shacks of overnight protesters, arguing that the area needed to be prepped for tourists. The scandalous tales of venality and fraud now associated with the CWG are but a logical outcome of the secrecy and suppression of voice that mark their foundational fabric.


It is crucial that the government launch a detailed inquiry into the bidding process for the CWG and act on other recommendations issued by critics such as HRLN. These include investigating human rights violations related to the CWG, conducting a post-event audit to assess its legacy, and holding to account officials who have deliberately overstated the benefits of the Games, withheld information, and misappropriated funds. Most importantly, the CWG has uncovered the human cost of being "world class." Under no circumstances, therefore, should India bid for the Olympic Games or any other mega-event that will fuel the pursuit of this absurd dream or further entrench the inequitable urban agenda described above. But things will probably get worse before they get better. The lure of national prestige, an immovable deadline, and the fear of national humiliation have served to counter resistance to these Games, even in the face of embarrassing delays and appalling corruption.


Mitu Sengupta teaches politics at Ryerson University, Canada, and is currently in Delhi with the Centre for Development and Human Rights.