Posted at 08:12 PM ET, 10/29/2011

Formula 1 galas and Lady Gaga: against a backdrop of poverty

As Indians catch Formula 1 fever, local media lists the top-10 glamorous wheels and celebrity drivers rev up their cars, many are asking why India is hosting this elitist sport this weekend in New Delhi.

The race to take place at the $ 400 million Buddh International Circuit in a New Delhi suburb has raised old questions about India’s poverty, potholed roads and government priorities.
Formula 1 driver Jenson Button of Britain takes a spin in a three-wheels car ahead of Sunday's Indian Formula One Grand Prix. (Luca Bruno/AP)

Not too long ago, the hosting suburb of Greater Noida was the site of weeks of massive farmer unrest over forced acquisition of land by the government for construction projects -- including India’s first race track. Many villagers complained that the track, snaking past their villages, had also cut off their connections to the main road.

But the hype in the run-up to the event has eclipsed the memory of last summer’s protest. Pop icon, Lady Gaga will be performing at the stadium on Sunday. People are trying to wrangle invites to the wild after-parties with Bollywood and cricket stars. There is even a beauty pageant to pick the face of this weekend’s F1.

Some analysts say that it is a cruel irony that the tracks are built to perfection while the rest of India settles for driving on potholed, rollercoaster roads. (The mandatory requirement of a six-lane highway from the airport to the track was waived for India’s inaugural Grand Prix.) Others bemoaned what they called the misplaced priorities and superficial showcasing that India’s recent economic growth has come to symbolize, in spite of deep poverty and chronic malnutrition.

The state of India’s poor was not lost on the visiting players, either.

Jenson Button, the driver for Britain’s Mercedes GP, hit a nerve when he said that the nation was “difficult” for drivers to visit because they were stunned by the living conditions.

“You can’t forget the poverty. It's difficult coming here for the first time, you realize there's a big divide between the wealthy people and the poor people,” Button said, adding that he hoped that the benefits of the gala sporting event will trickle down to the poorest eventually.

But others in India said that it was time for the country to move on from the poverty debate.

“In every country, there are the privileged and the underprivileged. We have underprivileged people in our country, but that does not mean the country must be bogged down or weighed down,” Vijay Mallya, Force India team co-owner, told reporters. “India is a progressive country; we have a strongly growing economy, a large economy. The government is doing all it can to address the need of the poor or the underprivileged people, but India must move on.”

Meanwhile, the race track drivers spent the final days before the flag-off riding auto-rickshaws, motor scooters and giving interviews to the local media about the spicy Indian food.

In the past few years, the F1 organizers have slowly started shifting their focus to the Asian continent. Most of the new television viewers of the motorsport are expected to come from the emergent economies of the East. China has been hosting F! every year since 2004, and six of the 19 races this year will be held in Asian countries. In India, the growing urban middle class is slowly moving away from its single-minded obsession with the British-era sport of cricket and turning its attention to sports such as football, auto racing, tennis and golf.

By  |  08:12 PM ET, 10/29/2011

Tags:  World, Formula One, Lady Gaga, India

 
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