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THE decision to award the 2012 Asian Games to Incheon (South Korea) rather than Delhi has generated expected dismay in many quarters. Reportedly, the Indian bid was rejected because the Union Minister of Sports, Mani Shankar Aiyar, was insufficiently enthusiastic, if not hostile. ‘Whether you organize the games in New Delhi or Melbourne, the state of people living in colonies right opposite the Games site will remain the same.’ Prior to the cabinet decision to back the bid, he had vociferously argued that the moneys proposed to be spent on the mega event would be better utilized for enhancing grassroots sports facilities, if not on upgrading public schools or hospitals.

Is this merely one more example of the unerring ability of the Congress party to work at cross-purposes and undercut potential rivals? Or is it also, as some commentators suggest, a reflection of a mistaken populist/socialist mindset, advancing false polarities between mega events and mass welfare, akin to the Bharat-India formulation? Yet, while the above concerns merit serious engagement, we should equally be cognisant of the political context in which the games are proposed to be held.

For a start, despite the obvious accretions to civic infrastructure resulting from the 1980 Asiad, the last time the national capital staged a mega sports event, the subsequent experience has been dismaying, with few of the many promises made at the time fructifying. The stadia were allowed to fall into disrepair, used, if at all, more for entertainment extravaganzas than sports. And the Asian Games Village was appropriated for housing by the bureaucracy. True, the city got wider roads and some flyovers as also colour television. But not only were civic finances left in a mess, many of the less fortunate were shifted out of their existing locations, both to enable infrastructure development as also to enhance the city’s image. Let us also not forget the disgraceful treatment meted out to members of the Sikh community, then in the throes of an agitation, all to ensure ‘security’ at the Games.

A quarter century later, Delhi is considerably more rather than less troubled. The drive to ‘sanitize’ and clean up the city has resulted in massive dislocation of slum and pavement dwellers; the closure of ‘polluting industry’, mainly small-scale and household, has negatively impacted on employment; the ongoing drive against hawkers and street vendors, as also the closure of commercial establishments in residential areas, is adding to distress and tension. At the risk of sounding dramatic, large parts of the city, away from the salubrious environs of Lutyen’s Delhi today resemble a war zone. With so much of this activity driven by the need to make a show of the 2010 Commonwealth games, should we be surprised that many citizens look upon these events with trepidation? Let us not forget that the incumbent Congress party was routed in the recent municipal corporation elections, and in all likelihood faces the same fate in the prospective assembly polls.

This is not to argue that the city does not need a major makeover of its crumbling infrastructure. Or even that events like the Commonwealth or Asian Games cannot kick-start a process of regeneration, long overdue. Nor should one be blindly hostile to what, among radical circles, are derisively referred to as ‘elite’ goods – be they upmarket hotels and malls, flyovers or expressways, entertainment complexes or modern airports. Creatively and intelligently deployed, all these can result in substantial revenue generation and employment, enhance ‘brand’ Delhi, possibly even contribute to a greater sense of civic order in an otherwise chaotic urban space.

It has also been argued that the other sorely needed public goods – better education and health facilities; public parks; improved water, sewage and power; public transport and so on – should not be linked to the staging of the games. That a responsible, democratic government ought to be working on these problems anyway. True. But, our experience so far is that it does not, at least not sufficiently. Worse, since mega-events are linked to national pride and success is demanded at all costs, not only are established rules and procedures given a short shrift, thereby enhancing the likelihood of corruption, but that the poor and the marginal are asked to bear an inordinate share of the inevitable dislocation costs.

Beyond the media grabbing headlines of the Aiyar-Kalmadi stand-off or even the more restrained criticism voiced by Delhi Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit, lie contending constructions of the city. Far too many of those who matter remain enraptured by visions of a global standards city, unmindful of the needs and desires of the less fortunate citizens. Possibly, this is what Aiyar is pointing to.

Harsh Sethi