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The asses of New Delhi

With a year to go before hosting the Commonwealth Games, Delhi targets the poor. Its donkeys, too.

The city has promised a “signal free” stretch of costly flyovers and tunnels into the heart of town from Indira Gandhi International Airport, which will only make life more difficult for pedestrians and bicyclists — i.e. those too poor  to afford a scooter. While the games venues include mostly public facilities, a hefty sum has been allotted to renovate the Siri Fort Sports Complex, an elite club that is closed to new members. Meanwhile, plans to use the money for athlete housing to construct dormitories that would later be turned over to Delhi University — where the shortage of rooms is more shocking than the state of its libraries — have been scrapped in favor of a scheme that will see the “Games Village” sold off as luxury apartments.

But that's not all. On the way to becoming world class — a feat that a five-minute walk in any neighborhood of the city suggests will take 25 years, not less than one — Delhi also plans to renovate one of its oldest and (though chaotic) most charming areas, sterilize the city's
260,000 stray dogs, stamp out Delhi Belly and send the city's 60,000 destitute beggars packing for parts unknown.

And then there are the infamous donkeys, though it seems the sacred cows get to stay.

For better or worse, though, this is Delhi, not Beijing. So locals are less concerned about the smart of the totalitarian stick than they are cynical about the eventual destination of all that cash. For instance, in Delhi's ancient commercial center Chandni Chowk, a bustling thoroughfare that has remained a top tourist draw since the 17th century despite overwhelming chaos and filth, the government has allotted a paltry $3 million — less than a tenth of what is being spent on some Games venues — to remove dangerous thickets of electrical wires, lay new water and gas lines, and convert the area to a pedestrian-only zone paved with Mughal-era bricks. And residents doubt that even that much will be spent as intended.

“Half of it will go in bribes,” said Chandraprakash Sharma, the 55-year-old owner of a sweet shop started here by his grandfather 80 years ago. “It's good they are doing the Games. But they should also  look within themselves and think about the state of the country.”

In less than a year, that's what the rest of the world will be doing. But planners would do well to remember that the world doesn't want New Delhi to be another Beijing. What audiences will be looking for is proof of the moral character and sensitivity of the world's largest democracy — India's “soft power.”

That, and maybe a donkey or two.