Commonwealth Games mar New Delhi's image

BANGALORE, India — What was supposed to be India’s moment of glory is fast turning into the country's hour of shame.

Just weeks before the opening ceremony slated for Oct. 3, the New Delhi Commonwealth Games are proving a debacle in every sense of the word. They have been dogged by massive corruption scandals, a spate of resignations, incomplete preparations and serious security concerns.

“This is a public relations disaster for India,” said Ashwini Nachappa, former international athlete. Nachappa and 10 other international athletes have spearheaded CleanSports India, a nationwide campaign to rid Indian sports of crooked officials, including those overseeing the games.

In New Delhi, the stench of corruption is already beginning to rival the notoriously stinky Yamuna River flowing through the capital city. The budget has well overshot the originally allotted $75 million, the bulk of which is being paid by taxpayers. The final costs are expected to be about $8 billion.

Scandal after scandal has unraveled revealing kickbacks, shadowy off-shore firms, forged emails, inexplicable payments to bogus companies and inflated bills — for every purchase from toilet paper to treadmills.

The corruption is endless, said Rajesh Tomar, a former Indian international athlete on the committee overseeing the games. “It is one massive waste of public money, time and energy,” Tomar said.

India’s corruption watchdog, Central Vigilance Commission, pointed out irregularities in more than a dozen projects and questioned the quality of the venues. Huge piles of rubble and rubbish, a collapsed roof, hanging wires, leaky walls, broken tiles and an incomplete stadium have become the visual staple of daily newspapers and television channels.

Earlier this month, games treasurer Anil Khanna resigned following graft allegations. Three games officials were suspended following an investigation into financial irregularities.

“It is obvious that a complete lack of governance and accountability has led to all kinds of politicians and officials diving in to make a quick buck out of the government’s largesse,” said sports columnist Ayaz Memon. The ever-emerging scams are like a can of worms, he said.

A few heads have rolled but action has stopped short of Suresh Kalmadi, a leader of the ruling Congress Party and long-standing head of the Indian Olympic Committee who is ultimately in charge of the Commonwealth Games. The Congress Party’s leaders have repeatedly emphasized that national pride is at stake and it's time to band together.

“What national pride?” asked Memon, who felt that India’s hopes of bidding for the Olympics or any future major sports event were now completely dashed. “For an emerging economic giant, this is really gloomy.”

The games are being highlighted as a total squander of public money. Television channels are focusing on the pathetic facilities provided for the hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers who have been employed to build the infrastructure for the games. City officials have gone on large-scale campaigns to rid the city of poor squatters and slum-dwellers. Yet, New Delhi still looks like a giant digging site.

“Why should the aam janata [average person] be blackmailed over national pride? The games will benefit nobody … not India’s future athletes, not its citizens,” Nachappa said, echoing the popular feeling that the millions of rupees could be better spent building roads, schools and hospitals.

Some optimistic commentators are breezily saying that the New Delhi Commonwealth Games will finally fall in place, like a chaotic, disorganized Indian family pulling off a picture-perfect wedding. But average Indians doubt it.

Tanvi Rajaram, a Bangalore-based insurance executive, jokingly asked: “Will the bride arrive at her wedding in a state of undress?”