New Delhi Is Torn Up in Preparation for 2010 Commonwealth Games

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

NEW DELHI -- Nearly every road is dug up. Giant cranes and hazy dust cloud the skyline. India's capital is in the midst of a breathless construction overdrive in the run-up to an international sporting event scheduled for next year.

New Delhi hopes the Commonwealth Games, in which 71 former British colonies compete, will bring the global limelight that the Olympics brought to Beijing last year. Leaders see it as central to India's growing ambition to transform its cramped capital of 14 million people into a 21st-century supercity that can hope to host future Grand Prix auto races and Olympiads.

But the makeover dream is fast turning into a nightmare.

With the October 2010 deadline looming, a government report says that stadium designs, hotel rooms, sporting venues and roads are not fully ready. And some people are beginning to ask whether the chaotic capital of the world's largest democracy has what it takes to successfully put together a multi-sport mega-event the way China did.

"There is a real threat of India's showpiece games turning into a non-event," the Times of India newspaper said recently. A television news channel called Times Now asked viewers the painful question "Why can't we just get it right?"

"The entire city is dug up right now. New roads, the Metro, the bridges, new energy-efficient streetlights, power lines and drains. Delhi is in a hurry to demolish its old self and rebuild anew. That does create chaos and delays," said Sheila Dikshit, Delhi's chief minister. Now 71, she has ruled the city for 11 years with the promise of turning it around. "It is our opportunity to become a world-class city."

India will be spending more than $325 million in getting the city ready with about 100 projects to upgrade its crumbling infrastructure, launch disabled-friendly buses, clean up the Yamuna River, and create heritage trails and public art.

And Dikshit plans a "Delhi celebrates" campaign -- like Beijing's pre-Olympics politeness training -- to teach etiquette to residents who will receive 200,000 visitors during the 11-day event.

Residents will be trained to respect lines, not jump traffic lights and lanes, and not fly into road rage, a frequent occurrence on Delhi's crowded streets. Training in basic English and politeness will be given to taxi and rickshaw drivers, railway station workers, immigration officers, shopkeepers, and 30,000 volunteers.

"We will be taking a leaf from the 'I Love New York' campaign to create pride among residents. We want to show the world that we are a courteous and clean people. We will teach people not to litter, spit and urinate in public spaces, and tell the men not to harass or stare at women." said Reena Ray, director of Delhi Tourism and Transport Development Corp. "Every city around the world uses international sporting events to reinvent itself. China used the Olympics to announce to the world, "We have arrived."

Indian officials appear to have watched the Beijing Olympics very closely. As in Beijing, schools, colleges and courts will have a holiday during the games, but with a slightly different goal of preventing athletes from getting stuck in the capital's traffic jams.

While Beijing built walls to hide the unsavory parts, New Delhi wants a bamboo shield to conceal them.

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