Keeping Up Appearances


The Indian media had a ball in the months leading up to the recently completed Commonwealth Games, hosted by India for the first time. Every major newspaper and television station weighed in, with banner headlines and lead stories—stories about the mammoth waste involved, the staggering levels of corruption, and, most important, the organizing committee’s shocking ineptness.

Just days before the athletes were to arrive in Delhi, an inspection tour revealed uninhabitable housing, stadiums knee-deep in stagnant water, and open ditches, broken pavement, and piles of rubble everywhere. Terrorists attacked a bus filled with foreign tourists; a dengue fever outbreak worsened; and, a day after its inspection, a footbridge collapsed, injuring twenty-seven workers, five critically. Athletes from around the world began pulling out of the games, most citing injuries or personal reasons, but some openly admitting they were worried about their safety, health, and comfort.

At a press conference called to explain the committee’s lapses, its second in command, Lalit Bhanot, told the Indian press, “These rooms [in the athletes’ village] are clean to both you and us.” But, he said, foreigners “want certain standards in hygiene and cleanliness which may differ from our perception.” The immediate reaction to his remarks, both at home and abroad, was fury. Salman Rushdie suggested that Bhanot should be publicly rebuked. On Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere, and in all the major media, there was outrage about the humiliation Bhanot’s remarks had brought on the country. How dare he suggest that India lacked the same standards of cleanliness as other nations!

But at least one writer welcomed the statement as refreshingly accurate. Madhu Kishwar, in a scathing piece in Manushi, a journal about women and society, wrote:

Why this phony outrage at Lalit Bhanot brazenly admitting on TV that our sense of hygiene and sanitation is different from that of first-world or even second-world countries? It is evident anywhere you look.... Our tolerance level for filth, squalor, and disease is so magnanimous that far from matching first-world standards, even in comparison to third-world countries, India qualifies as the dirtiest and filthiest in terms of its public hygiene.

The organization and execution of the Commonwealth Games illustrate the nature of India’s development and governance. While officials across the spectrum have repeatedly chastised the naysayers for their lack of national pride, seeing the corruption, waste, and violence associated with the games made it impossible to feel patriotic pride or even much interest in them.

Corruption: No one can say exactly how much money was spent on hosting the games, but clearly it was billions of dollars. As an opportunity for graft, the games were unparalleled. Stories of toilet-paper rolls selling for $100 apiece were common. Other countries, including the United States, have such stories, but at least the work gets done along with the siphoning. Here, the work is simply a flimsy pretense for the real commitment: making money.

Waste: the games were aptly compared to an Indian wedding, at which extravagance and senseless displays of wealth are common. Poor families here routinely go bankrupt hosting marriage receptions and buying costly jewelry, clothes, and furniture they cannot afford. (Our dhobi, or washerman, recently invited us to his brother’s wedding. We were among twelve hundred guests, all treated to a lavish dinner for which he will be paying for years.) But when a government forgoes education, medical care, water, and sanitation for its own children to ensure that foreign athletes have fun for two weeks, it is nothing less than criminal.

Violence: hundreds of thousands of people had their homes demolished when the government set about “beautifying” Delhi for the games. Most of the destroyed shacks belonged to the nameless workers who keep the city running—the masons, plumbers, rickshaw pullers, domestic workers, and street cleaners. Because they depend on their pitiful daily wages to survive, they continue to do the same work, only now they must travel far greater distances, having been “resettled” outside the city so that tourists wouldn’t be offended by the sight of their hovels. Hundreds of thousands of street vendors, who bring fruits and vegetables to people’s doorsteps, were also evicted, and their carts and provisions impounded so that foreigners wouldn’t think we’re still a nation of street peddlers.

Then there were the lack of security precautions essential in such a volatile area, poor medical arrangements, the erecting of Potemkin-like “view blocks” in front of slums and garbage dumps.

In a television interview the night before the games, Sheila Dixit, chief minister of Delhi, scolded the show’s host for finding fault. Don’t we all do this? she asked. If you have guests, don’t you want your house to look nice? Don’t you serve your best meals and get dressed up? That’s all we’re doing, she said. We are welcoming our guests.

Indeed, we all like to welcome guests, but we don’t do it by hiding our children in a filthy shack ten miles away, taking money from our neighbors to repave the road to our house while actually spending half of it on new cars and cases of wine. The government of India does precisely that—playing games with people’s money and with people’s lives.

Published in the 2010-11-05 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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