On eve of Commonwealth Games, India's persistent red tape is in spotlight

The spotlight finally turned to sports at the Commonwealth Games, where 71 nations have gathered to compete for 272 gold medals
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 12:15 AM

IN NEW DELHI It didn't take long for the first athletes arriving in New Delhi last week for the upcoming Commonwealth Games to catch a glimpse of modern India's two faces.

Their gateway to the country was the capital's gleaming new international airport terminal, built by a privately led consortium and opened in June four months ahead of schedule.

But the official wristbands that the visitors were handed at the airport turned out to be an emblem of India's famous red tape and government inefficiency. When the teams reached the athletes' village, the police guarding the facility refused to recognize the IDs, saying that the Games Organizing Committee had not sent the required authorization order.

The jet-lagged athletes stood about under a tree for hours with their luggage, calling their embassies for help, and the problem was not finally resolved for four more days.

To observers, the incident illustrated more than just the well-documented sloppiness that has marked India's preparations for the Games. It also underscored the gap that has emerged between a government rooted in a slower-moving, socialist era and a private entrepreneurial class that is busy building global IT companies, the world's largest oil refineries and spectacular structures such as the $2.8 billion airport terminal.

"It is about two aspects of the India story," said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an entrepreneur and member of Parliament. "India's private sector has been exposed to competition and therefore has developed capability. Accountability is firmly built into the entrepreneurial mind-set. But the government structure is a relic of the colonial past and continues to plod along."

While the terminal opened early despite delays caused by village protests and litigation over land acquisition, the government has struggled for seven years to prepare for the Games. It had hoped the event would showcase India's rising might. Instead, on the eve of the opening ceremony Sunday, setbacks such as unhygienic accommodations and collapsing structures have triggered accusations of corruption and ineptitude.

For a bureaucracy known for delays, dithering and lack of accountability, the standards the Chinese government set for the Beijing Olympics did not help, either. It has become apparent that New Delhi's hydra-headed management style was ill equipped from the start to stitch together an event on this scale, particularly in the full glare of global publicity.

A full week after the Canadian hockey team landed in India, customs officials had still not released its sticks and uniforms. An official who was battling Tuesday to resolve several crises in the village said that the bureaucracy's left hand did not know what its right hand was doing. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

At least 21 government departments oversaw the construction projects for the Games. Many of the agencies were either unaware of their assigned responsibilities or disputed them, and they maintained different sets of timelines for the same project. Almost all the construction deadlines were revised three to four times.

"It is the problem of too many cooks. There is no single person who is in charge, who is accountable and whose neck is on the line," said Tarun Das, former head of the Confederation of Indian Industry. "Every project was delayed, and quality was compromised."

The athletes' village on the Yamuna riverbed was beset by problems from the beginning. It was slowed by environmental lawsuits, on-site protests and the global economic slowdown. It took 17 months to get all the bureaucratic clearances. Workers are still carrying out last-minute fixes at the village.

"We can brag as much as we like about the new India. But when it comes to delivering on an international commitment, we are no China. We are still corrupt, slothful old India," the Hindustan Times' editorial director, Vir Sanghvi, wrote Sunday.

A World Bank report about the ease of doing business in different countries ranks India 133rd and China 89th. Enforcing a contract in India takes an average 1,420 days, compared with 406 days in China. Closing down a bankrupt business takes seven years in India, whereas it takes 20 months in China.

"If you want to build a world-class transport infrastructure in a city in India, you are challenged by an already overcrowded place, with narrow roads and no maps for the underground water, electricity and sewerage lines," said Grandhi Mallikarjuna Rao, chairman of the GMR Group, which builds power plants, highways and airports across India and led the consortium that built New Delhi's new terminal.

For the Delhi project, Rao said, his company worked with 58 government agencies.

"Our nation is in the process of transition from a command-and-control economic system to a more efficient market-driven structure," he said. "It will take some time till this transition is complete."

There is, however, at least one government structure that works: the Delhi Metro. A fully owned state company, it laid 77 miles of track in less than five years to meet the Commonwealth Games deadline. It helps that the Delhi Metro has as its chief executive an award-winning, tough railway engineer named E. Sreedharan, who does not tolerate bureaucratic or political interference and treats targets as sacrosanct.

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