India's Commonwealth Games Mess

  • Share
  • Read Later
Anupam Nath / AP

Indian laborers work at one of the Commonwealth Games venues. Corruption allegations and construction delays have dogged the games, which will take place Oct. 3-14, 2010, in New Delhi

The biggest international sporting spectacle ever to head for India is just five weeks away — and the Commonwealth Games are still mired in controversy, inefficiency, bureaucratic infighting and delays. Even the anthem — composed by double Oscar winner A.R. Rahman of "Jai Ho" fame — is late. At a press conference on Aug. 16 meant to unveil the song, Rahman sang one line and then said the song wasn't quite ready. "I still have to tweak some lyrics and do much more modification with the sound elements," he explained. A source in India's Sport Ministry, though, said the delay was due to a "lack of agreement over which minister should actually be given the honors" of introducing the song.

The games have much more serious problems. India has already spent at least $4.6 billion — nine times more than its December 2003 estimate of $500 million — to upgrade stadiums, refurbish roads and build power and water utilities. It spent another $2.7 billion on a new airport terminal. But the 12-day-long event, which will see athletes competing from the former British Commonwealth, has already been marred by allegations of corruption even before its start in New Delhi on Oct. 3.

The Indian government is in full damage-control mode. Trying to salvage the event, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has formed a special group of ministers and assigned 10 senior bureaucrats to oversee the completion of various unfinished games projects. Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress Party, said that those guilty of corruption would not be spared after the mega sports event is over. "The prestige of the nation is involved," she said. Two games officials have already stepped down. The joint director general of the Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee, T.S. Darbari, was fired after press allegations of financial irregularity based on leaks from the Sports Ministry. Darbari refused comment but said, "Investigations will tell [the truth]. I was taken to task without any trial or any hearing." The other official, Anil Khanna, the treasurer of the committee, resigned after reports that his son's company was granted a contract for laying 14 synthetic tennis courts. Khanna said he stepped down because the charges hurt him and his family but that "I have nothing to hide. I was not a part of the Commonwealth Games 2010 Organizing Committee when the tender was passed."

The swirl of public outrage started at the end of July with a report by India's top anticorruption watchdog. It concluded that the Commonwealth Games' infrastructure was hazardous to both athletes and spectators because of "large-scale corruption, usage of substandard material and repeated delays." The news has only gotten worse, with fresh reports of questionable dealings surfacing almost daily in the media. The games are now being blamed for everything from an outbreak of dengue fever to flooded streets.

Mother Nature has, indeed, played a part. New Delhi's monsoon usually hits in late July, which would have given games organizers a few weeks after the rains had subsided to finish construction. Instead, this year's late monsoon has kept the city a waterlogged mess through August. Roads in the Indian capital are collapsing, including some of the new ones laid out for the games. "Already more than 20 roads have caved in," says Ajay Chadha, special commissioner of police for traffic. "The number of cases of road collapse have increased manifold this year. And some roads which have no history of such incidents have also caved in after upgradation work was done on them for the Commonwealth Games."

Debris from the construction work has also choked New Delhi's main storm-water drains, which carry excess rainwater into the Yamuna River. For all the new bike lanes, bus stations and high-tech toilets that they have built, the planners apparently never intended to install a new drainage system or to upgrade the old one. Arti Mehra, the former mayor of New Delhi and a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, puts the blame squarely on the office of the Prime Minister and the ruling Congress Party. "For eight years, the Congress government did nothing — they slept over the project works," she said.

Meanwhile, all the rainwater pooling in open construction sites is an ideal breeding site for mosquitoes, and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (the same agency responsible for most of the construction) blames that situation for this year's severe outbreak of dengue, a mosquito-borne disease. This year, there have been nearly 400 confirmed cases of dengue (local medical experts say the number is likely several times that), including one Malaysian athlete who went to New Delhi for the Asian All-Star Athletic Meet, a test event for the Commonwealth Games held at the flagship Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium July 29-30. "Delhi is already dug up because of the CWG [Commonwealth Games] and it is also raining very heavily," says India's Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. "Since water remains stored in many places, it becomes a breeding place for mosquitoes, which are contributing to diseases." Officials say a mosquito-eradication program is in place but nothing is yet evident on the ground.

Then there are the cost overruns. The $7.5 billion price tag for the 2010 Commonwealth Games is already the highest ever for the event (the 2006 games held in Melbourne may have cost close to $1 billion). But the costs include, according to documents provided to investigators by the organizing committee, $89 rolls of toilet paper, $61 soap dispensers, $125 first-aid kits and treadmills rented for 45 days at a cost of $23,080 each. And there is the problem of contracts. According to leaked Sports Ministry documents, $429,000 was paid to the British company AM Films to supply transport and portable toilets last October for the start of the traditional kickoff of the games, the Queen's Baton Relay at Buckingham Palace. There was, however, no formal contract with AM Films. Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the organizing committee, admitted at a press conference that there had been no time to sign a contract for the relay and that several other projects had been approved in a similar manner without contracts.

In New Delhi, Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) president Mike Fennell and CEO Mike Hooper have had to answer questions from the Indian media about an interim report from India's Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which raised questions about how consulting contracts, worth millions of dollars, were awarded. A final report will be presented in Parliament next March. According to the interim report, the organizing committee awarded contracts to sports marketing firms to help find sponsors for the games based solely on the suggestions of three people: Fennell, Hooper and Kalmadi. In one case, according to the CAG, a $4.7 million consultancy contract was awarded to Ernst & Young, despite a lower bid from Pricewaterhouse Coopers.

Hooper held an impromptu press conference outside the organizing committee's headquarters to deny any wrongdoing. "The CGF makes appropriate recommendations based on recommendations," he said. Fennell said the CGF has left it to the Indian authorities to investigate the charges of financial irregularities that have rocked the organizing committee. "There has been reporting of corruption. It has been of great concern for CGF," Fennell said.

Kalmadi, who is also a member of Parliament from the ruling Congress Party, remains defiant. "This is a smear campaign to bring disrepute to the games," he told TIME. He insisted that all the games contracts were awarded properly but refused to comment on any of the specific allegations until the end of the event on Oct. 14. "I am ready to face any inquiry after the games," he said.

Fennell, who wrapped up a two-day inspection of the venues in New Delhi last week, says his main concern is hygiene in the athletes' village. "Buildings alone don't make the village; it's the management and the food which will ensure that the village is what we want it to be," he told the press on Aug. 12. "We will have to make sure that the food served is of the highest standard because the athletes would have to be given the best standard of hygiene." But, he said, there is also "a need to address the roads, the landscape and the cleaning of the village. These need to be addressed with urgency. We don't have much time left."

Chakrabarti is the chief national correspondent of CNN-IBN.