Hundreds of thousands displaced in New Delhi to make way for Commonwealth Games
Saturday, July 10, 2010
NEW DELHI -- Rehman Khan's family cooks, eats and sleeps on a dirt tract beside a construction site. But he was not always homeless. His modest brick house in the heart of New Delhi was among those bulldozed a year ago to make way for an underpass that will link two stadiums during the Commonwealth Games in October.
The Games are New Delhi's showcase sporting event, one that officials hope will catapult the crowded, chaotic capital into the realm of a 21st-century supercity. In the past three years, the capital has been dressing itself up to welcome players from 71 nations and territories of the former British Commonwealth by building new stadiums, roads, flyovers, colorful sidewalks, airport terminals and hotels.
But the glitz and gleam of the construction are leaving a long trail of forced evictions and displacements, joblessness, labor law violations, environmental damage and huge cost overruns.
"For the 11-day Games event, the government demolished the lives we built here over 18 years," said Khan, a 58-year-old vegetable salesman, as he stared at the noisy construction site where his house once stood. "Poor people like us are inconvenient for their grand dreams. They treat us like flies in the tea cup, to be just picked and thrown away."
A chorus of critics is questioning the government's choice to spend billions of dollars on a one-time sporting extravaganza in a country where more than 370 million people live in poverty.
More than 100,000 families and about 300,000 street-cart vendors, rickshaw-pullers, corner shop owners and beggars have been evicted to beautify the streets for the Games, according to a report by the Housing and Land Rights Network, a think tank. The report said the budget allocation from the youth and sports ministry for the Games has risen about 62 times since 2005. Although the official cost estimate is $2.2 billion, the report estimates it to be at least three times that much.
Sidewalks across the capital are being repaved for the Games, medians re-laid, shiny granite tiles installed at shopping centers and imported grass planted in the central shopping arcade. The construction work has attracted hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers from impoverished villages across the country.
"The Games will help the government turn its nose up in pride, but what about us?" said Ram Kishan, a gardener whose house was knocked down.
Dunu Roy, director of Hazards Centre, an advocacy group that has campaigned against the elaborate preparation for the Games, said that "overnight, the working-class people have been branded encroachers and presented as a liability in the city. . . . The legacy of the Games will be a deeply polarized society."
But officials say the Games have been important to India's development.
"Our workers have gained valuable construction skills with modern machinery that will come handy as Indian urbanizes more and more. Our Public Works Department, which was known for chronic project delays, has learned an important lesson in the art of finishing things in time," said Rakesh Mehta, Delhi's chief secretary. "We have been cautious about demolishing settlements of the poor, but many were unavoidable."
He said the Games would leave a lasting legacy of bike paths, wider roads and buses that are accessible for the disabled. The completion of Delhi's gleaming new subway system was also speeded up in anticipation of the Games. But citizen groups say the legacy also includes a huge debt, rising prices and social conflict.
Environmentalists are also up in arms over a luxury condominium building for foreign athletes that has been built in the flood plain of the already thinning Yamuna River. They say the condominium will restrain the river and choke the flow of the groundwater channels that replenish it.
A February report by a Delhi High Court-appointed committee said that workers at the Games sites earned inadequate wages, worked in unsafe and unhygienic conditions, received no health benefits or safety gear, and lived in run-down shelters. Some sites employ child laborers, the report said.
"In its last-minute hurry to meet deadlines, the government is flouting all labor laws and endangering the workers' lives," said Amjad Hassan, general secretary of the Delhi Unorganized Construction Workers Union. "Most of these workers are given cheap plastic helmets in the name of safety. No gloves, no protective eyeglasses, safety belt or boots. Accidents are frequent. Almost 100 people died since 2007 at these Games construction sites."
Mehta, the city's chief secretary, said workers "are given shelters near the site, are given full safety gear and paid adequately."
On a recent morning, 12-year-old Mukesh Kumar sat huddled with teenage migrant workers eating rice and lentils under a makeshift tent at a work site.
"We work all night widening the roads," Kumar said. "If we do this well, we will find more work in other important projects. There is nothing in my village to go back to."