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November 1, 2010

The growing governance gap

It is testimony to the inefficiency, delays and corruption which marked the preparation for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) that lack of a major disaster was greeted with a huge sigh of relief. That is if you consider the unfinished stadiums, collapsing bridges, and a dilapidated games village as minor glitches. Add to this mixture the comical Suresh Kalmadi, Congress politician and president of the Indian Olympic Association, who appears to inhabit an alternate universe and the picture of utter chaos is complete.

Unfortunately an event on which huge sums of public money have been expended, and which were marketed as a signal of India’s arrival proved little except that India still has a long way to go. That, by itself, is not news; what is bothering is that India’s name has been besmirched despite spending billions of dollars on an event which ordinarily would attract little global attention.

And yet it is equally true that the coverage of the games in the foreign media has been over the top. The smallest negative incident has been highlighted and selective reporting has been the norm rather than the exception. Relatively minor incidents like a stray dog in a stadium have been portrayed in cataclysmic terms. Some critics even blamed New Delhi’s weather, as if the Indian government could control the city’s notoriously hot summers.

Unsurprisingly, despite their own misgivings about the games, many Indians react to the constant stream of negative commentary with an instinctive defence of the games. It is, however, important to understand the context of the criticism and what lessons they hold for India.

Two often overlapping reactions were palpable in the global media.The first appears to stem from a desire to puncture the India’s growth story—or at least introduce a reality check. Every story on the games or the expenditure incurred was juxtaposed with tales of India’s poor; the old schtick that India’s growth story is restricted only to a few islands of urban prosperity was constantly invoked. There is little doubt that poverty remains endemic to India, but it is less clear what exactly is gained by introducing it in every story? Even the argument that a country as poor as India should not organise an event of this magnitude is terribly patronising and appropriates the right to dictate India’s future from her people and their elected representatives.

Second, there was constant criticism of the games with even minor glitches eliciting disproportionate coverage. While frequently churlish and unfair, it does indicate a grudging acceptance of India’s arrival. India’s inefficiencies may have evoked a patronising shrug a few decades back but now provoke outrage. The world, no longer willing to make allowances for India’s third world status, demanded that she deliver first-class games. Yes, this criticism may sting, but India must not offer excuses anymore. Success and victimhood do not march well together.

What also needs to be emphasised is the fact that India’s public institutions have failed to keep pace with her growth. India has hitherto grown despite the weakness of the state. However, this cannot be true indefinitely, and the lack of institutional capacity would ultimately undermine India’s success. This situation is unacceptable—much less in the global arena in which India operates—and calls for urgent corrective actions.

India paid the price for poor public policy in another equally important arena. It is to the credit of India’s security establishment that the games were incident free—but at what price? Roads were blocked, spectators had to pass through multiple checkpoints, and athletes were greeted by empty stadiums. A chaotic and vibrant city bursting with energy of her eager millions virtually resembled a ghost town. The economic cost is greater: Forget the influx of tourists as businesses had expected—rather, they suffered huge losses from constant closures and the sheer paranoia which kept visitors away. Supposedly a joyful and celebratory occasion, the games turned into a test of endurance for the people of New Delhi. Who can blame them then for wishing the games would end sooner than later so they could get on with their lives?

The wages of neglect and incompetent management of internal security were paid in the form of spectacular terrorist attacks across Indian cities over the last few years. But the ordinary citizens suffer equally when a diffident security establishment substitutes oppressive and arbitrary regulations for a cogent and well-thought approach to terror. The paradigm to judge India’s security must move from one in which ensuring an incident free event is the sole criterion to one which evaluates the effect of every security measure on citizen’s freedom of movement and quality of life. Under Home Minister P Chidambaram’s leadership, India’s security establishment has made much progress for which it deserves unstinted praise. But it should be held to higher standards.

The Union government has ordered a probe in all CWG related expenditures and alleged incidents of corruption. At the same time, not one person directly associated with organising these games—the organising committee, sports minister or Delhi’s chief minister—-have stepped up and admitted to their failures. The moral decrepitude of India’s polity manifested in the tendency to pass the buck must worry all Indians.

Some media reports suggest that the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) is already thinking of bidding for the 2019 Asian games and even the Olympics. It is hoped that rather than chasing these grandiose dreams, India would focus on drawing the right lessons from the CWG fiasco.


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