Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Commonwealth Games 2010: India is not ready for prime time

Misquote of the week

“These rooms are clean to both you and us. However, it may not appear so to
some others. They want certain standards in hygiene and cleanliness which may
differ from our perception,”

Lalit Bhanot, Official spokesperson and Secretary General for Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games.

A wake-up call

Before a bridge collapsed near the Delhi’s Commonwealth Games venue and the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) gave the Delhi 2010 organizers a day to clean the athlete’s village due to its accommodations being “absolutely filthy”, few outside India and even fewer outside of the Commonwealth –a last remaining shard of the shattered British Empire – had heard of Lalit Bhanot.

Hopefully, they will have to neither hear of nor hear from him again. But that misses the point, for Mr. Bhanot is an archetype all too familiar to those hailing from South Asia: the argumentative, cocksure, dismissive bureaucrat who is wholly incapable of instilling a modicum of confidence in his ability to keep his word and execute in an efficient, effective, transparent and incorruptible manner.

Moreover, the collapsed bridge and unsanitary conditions in the Athlete’s village juxtaposed against the outward veneer of exclusive residential real estate and gated communities – Emaar Properties has used the tag line “A historic address for those shaping India’s future” to sell these properties after the games– are metaphors for the two India’s.

India shining or slumming?

One comprises a 300 million strong middle class – ostensibly well educated, often with marketable technical skills – which grows affluent and fat (due to a stressful, sedentary lifestyle) in the urban core, the other comprises a rapidly growing underclass that is uneducated, illiterate and malnourished and in the extreme cases – when abetted by foreign agencies – taking up arms in a class struggle as Maoist (also referred to as Naxalite) insurgents in the rural peripheries.

Scratching beyond the surface:

Why should you care about Bhanot’s verbal incontinence?

You should care because his comments, as defensive and narrow minded as they were hide some tough truths of reality that bolster the argument that the 2010 Commonwealth Games made no sense for Delhi.

Public health: you should know that in addition to its teeming masses, India has an incomprehensible public sanitation problem – 700 million Indians have no toilets in their homes – which translates to breeding ground for illness during the monsoon season thanks to an absent civic infrastructure. Jason Gale reported on India's sanitation crisis in the March 2009 edition of Bloomberg Magazine.
Hype vs. reality: you should know that despite Nandan Nilekani and Thomas Friedman’s belletrist tomes, India is clearly not shining for those teeming masses. Perhaps if you have “Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century” and “The World is Flat: A brief History of the Twenty-First Century” in your library collection, you may want to replace them with Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger”, that offers and insightful glance into the world of the “Half-Baked Indian” who must claw and scratch, just like the chickens in wire coups waiting to be slaughtered in Old Delhi’s open air market, in order to navigate the dog eat dog world that is modern India.

India or China: you should know that despite (the 19 August 2010 edition of) The Economist newspaper’s provocative “Contest of the Century” profiling India and China, and their strained relationship, this is not a true contest; were it a race, China would have lapped India. Some say that India's leadership undertook the task of hosting the Commonwealth Games in order to show that the country 'had arrived' but given the country's populace cares more about cricket than the Commonwealth, and engineers get paid more for writing computer software code over pouring concrete in large infrastructure projects, it was not the right time for this undertaking.

Economic development: it must be evident to a policy maker that China is at least 20 years ahead in terms of economic development as the neoliberal ethos took hold in the corridors of power of the People’s Party despite the politburo’s putative commitment to communism. Under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, China’s coastal regions became tomorrow’s global centers of industry and commerce that are ready to lead the world today while in India, according to Michael Porter, the strategist every MBA student knows, “Indian firms face a really compelling logistical disadvantage over companies in China in terms of getting goods and services to market.”

Political reality: you should finally understand the inherent frustration of the Indian populace when it comes to their performance of their leaders in the Indian political class; they don't trust them but in keeping with their identities, they vote in a block fashion come election time.

The Commonwealth Games has provided a mirror to the corruption endemic in the country and the incompetence in undertaking infrastructure projects when the right individuals are clearly not in place until crisis mode takes hold. Furthermore, it has shed light on the excrement (literally and figuratively) that people become desensitized to as they go about their daily lives looking out for themselves.

The nation's promise

Ironically, the bureaucratic elites in India are populated with talented individuals, skilled at the highest levels and the nation's most selective institutions produce polished professionals able to make meaningful contributions to all sectors of society. However, within the government machinery framework, it is the lack of governance that permits an unremarkable legion of middling and lower level bureaucrats who simply cannot deliver the goods; these Commonwealth games have shown that despite India’s incomparable promise --in terms of opportunities in all manner of infrastructure, education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, and a demographic dividend that is the envy of many nations facing increasing dependency ratios-- it is very clearly not ready for prime time and will not be until a cultural shift takes hold.