The Price of Being World Class

Delhi is an anxious city this monsoon season, struggling to meet an onerous deadline. Preparations are on at a feverish pace for the nineteenth Commonwealth Games, which will bear down upon town in about two months (October 3-14), along with tens of thousands of tourists, television cameras and some 8500 athletes from the 71 states and territories that were once parts of the British Empire.

Around-the-clock construction amid spells of heavy rain has turned Delhi into a swirl of mud and scaffolding.  But the city’s frustrated residents expect that their upturned streets and impassable traffic jams will soon give way to something spectacular.  On the horizon, or so they’ve been told hundreds of times, is the transformation of India’s congested national capital into a ‘world class city,’ worthy not only of hosting this high-prestige sporting event, but of India’s growing reputation as a major global power.

This hubris-laden dream is a familiar one.  There is a tradition of using ‘urban spectacles’ such as the Olympics and World’s Fairs to enhance a city’s global recognition, image and status, and to push through controversial policy reforms that might 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).  All too often, however, the reforms involved center on a privatization of public assets, and are the invention of an affluent, globally connected minority that is relatively detached from local conditions and the local population.  The 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, a case in point, are being employed to invigorate an elite-driven program of major urban change.

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 ‘Games Village’ along the river Yamuna, which the President of the Indian Olympic Association assures will be “the best Games village in the world, perhaps better than the Olympic village at Beijing.”  Other ‘world class’ items to be paraded at the event include new arenas for tennis, wrestling and ‘big bore’ shooting.  As pointed out in a recent Times of India editorial, these high-end facilities are products of Western or Dubai-based conglomerates from “conception to realization.”  Following the event, many shall be turned into profit-making ventures to be managed by private companies, and apartments at the Games Village will be sold to private buyers, a decision that provoked considerable public outrage when MLAs associated with the Delhi State government demanded them at discounted rates.

Though hard to believe at present, given Delhi’s rubble-strewn streets and debris-clogged drainpipes, a much grander program of ‘urban regeneration’ is in the works.  The city is slated for a magnificent makeover; one that will transform it into a “classy metropolis.”  Delhi will get wider roads, higher bridges, clover-leaf flyovers, bus corridors, and an expanded subway network.  A flashy new airport terminal, cited as the eighth largest in the world, is among the few projects actually completed.

With the population of the city expected to swell to 23 million by 2021, such projects may seem reasonable, especially if all the money goes where it should.  But even if corruption were (miraculously) not a factor, the renovations underway may turn out to be a giant subsidy to tourists and the rich at the expense of local collective consumption by the poor.  Delhi Metro stands criticized for catering to the middle classes rather than the masses, and the new, brilliantly-lit Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi International Airport looms over a dusty, slum-peppered landscape like a quintessential ‘monument to vanity.’  The Games Village – a dense cluster of high rise buildings – was protested on the grounds that the allocated land is ecologically fragile and that construction would lead to the eviction of hundreds of vulnerable families (the Supreme Court duly overruled such objections).  Indeed, Delhi’s priorities are more plainly laid bare by other aspects of ‘beautification,’ such as bamboo screens to hide slums, and landscaping projects for the prosperous, leafy residential colonies that surround the main sites of the Games.

The Home Ministry, Ministry of Sports and Delhi Police have also developed a security agenda that will leave a lasting imprint on the city.  The ‘basics’ include a fourteen-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).  Before the Games, 58 important markets and 27 border checkpoints across Delhi will be secured with CCTV cameras; an automated fingerprint and palm identification system, the first for the country, will be installed at 135 police stations, and a high-tech ‘intelligent traffic management system,’ equipped with radars, will be installed in core areas of the city.  Behavioral changes are also expected.  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.

The cost of this massive transformation is staggering.  The budget for the CWG has ballooned from an initial outlay of INR 1,899 crore (USD 440 million) in 2003 to an official figure of INR 11,000 crore (USD 2.5 Billion), an estimate that excludes the price of non-sports-related infrastructure development (such as the extension of Delhi Metro), which will be borne by the Delhi Government. Unofficial estimates are much higher.  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 is likely to be in the “hundreds of crores.”  It suggests that the CWG is “likely to create a negative financial legacy for the nation, the effects of which are already visible in the form of higher cost of living and taxes for Delhi residents,” and argues that such outrageous spending for a twelve-day event is “hard to justify in a country that has glaringly high levels of poverty, hunger, inequality, homelessness and malnutrition.” The report concludes that “from the time of the bid to the continuous colossal escalation in the total budget [the CWG] has been characterized by a lack of public participation, transparency and government accountability.”

The HRLN has also brought to light some of the worrying social and environmental consequences of the event.  A Right to Information (RTI) application filed specifically for the HLRN study has uncovered a torrent of disturbing information.  Delhi has announced “no tolerance zones” for ‘beggars’ and is arbitrarily detaining homeless citizens under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959, an archaic law that was imported to Delhi in 1960.  Funds reserved for helping marginalized communities (under the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan) are reportedly being diverted to cover expenses related to the CWG.  Over 100,000 families have already been evicted in order to make space for CWG-related projects, and a further 30,000 to 40,000 are on the cusp of ‘relocation,’ an euphemism for shunting the poor to the remote peripheries of the city, where they face grueling commutes to work and disrupted schooling for their children.

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 barefaced labor violations.  As a consequence of the construction boom sparked by the CWG, some one 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 labor contractors for less than Delhi’s minimum wage of INR 152 (USD 3) per 8 hours work, and live in squalid, makeshift roadside camps that lack even the most basic amenities.  Eighteen on-site injuries and 42 deaths have been officially reported.

The arrogant misallocation of resources, labor violations and privatization and securitization of public space associated with the CWG are by no means unique moments in Delhi’s recent history.  Since the early 1990s, when India embarked on a program of radical economic liberalization, middle class ‘citizens groups,’ drawn mainly from India’s new managerial and technocratic classes, have launched aggressive campaigns to ‘cleanse’ cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata of ‘encroachers’ and ‘polluters.’ Slumdwellers, street vendors and rickshaw pullers have been consistently targeted, along with the destitute and homeless.

The demand for a safe and pristine bourgeois utopia – often framed in the language of a ‘public need’ for sanitation, security and environmental protection – has found mounting support among city officials and the judiciary.  The ‘beautification’ of freshly ‘cleaned-up’ promenades, parks, beaches and waterfronts has been undertaken with financial support from the corporate sector, with private security firms awarded contracts for the surveillance of freshly ‘cleaned up’ public spaces. The city, as Christiane Brosius suggests in a perceptive book on India’s ‘new middle class,’ is increasingly “following the patterns of a multinational corporation.”

The CWG will thus strengthen a model of inequitable urban change that is well underway in Delhi and other Indian cities; a program driven by the rather fascistic vision of an affluent minority who would rather not be reminded that 77 percent of the India’s population live on less than INR 20 (USD 50 cents) a day, and that more than half the country is engulfed by deadly insurgency. The lure of national prestige, an immovable deadline and, as of late, the urgency of avoiding national embarrassment, have proved good means to undermine the many independent activists and urban social movements that routinely resist this agenda.

MITU SENGUPTA is Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. She may be reached at: