India wants to be a great power. So why are its Commonwealth Games such a mess?

By Jason Overdorf
Sunday, October 3, 2010

NEW DELHI -- The Commonwealth Games, which begin here Sunday, were supposed to showcase New Delhi's emergence as a world-class city and India's ascent to major-power status. In a sort of Olympics-lite for the erstwhile British Empire, thousands of elite athletes from 71 nations and territories are to compete in everything from boxing to lawn bowling. But in the days before the opening ceremony, the world was instead treated to a farce of failure and recrimination.

Local hospitals, reeling from an epidemic of dengue fever, reported four patients to a bed. The road I take every morning to go jogging in a local park disintegrated into a minefield of craters under the monsoon rains. For the media tour last month, the competition venues looked impressive enough -- although showpiece Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was still under construction. But that was the least of New Delhi's problems.

International sports officials touring the athletes' housing at the Games Village found rooms littered with construction debris and walls stained red with betel-leaf-colored spit. Monkeys and stray dogs ran amok, and an underpaid, overworked laborer had acrobatically left his own special signature -- a coil of excrement in one of the sinks. Instead of a celebration of Delhi on a global stage, the run-up to the games was a series of humiliations.

It was also an ice-water wakeup. India's huge population and rapidly growing economy have long drawn parallels to China's, and India's debut on the international athletic stage naturally prompted comparisons with the dazzling Beijing Olympics of 2008. But India, it turns out, is no China.

"The lesson that we have to learn is that we have to improve our implementation," said Himanshu Jha of National Social Watch, an organization that monitors government corruption. Jha thinks the government is "in complete disarray: It's nonresponsive, it doesn't deliver on time, and when it does, it's at a much higher cost" than is justified.

The juxtaposition of Beijing's Olympic triumph and Delhi's Commonwealth shame highlights the most ominous signals that collapsing bridges and dissolving roads send for India's future. Everyone knows that China builds awe-inspiring railways and highways and stadiums -- and brutally crushes dissent -- while India builds nothing and lets everybody complain, criticize, protest and file suit. But too much democracy is not India's problem and is not the reason the Commonwealth Games are such a debacle. The nation suffers from a much more common ailment -- too little. As Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly told me, "The rule of law is fractured, and democracy has become an excuse for appalling governance."

Too enamored of its reputation as the world's largest democracy, India appears to be headed in the wrong direction.

I lived in Beijing in 1995 and 1996 and again in 1998, when China was just beginning to believe in its own foretold economic rise. In 1995, when the chairman of Kodak said that multinationals that failed in China would soon cease to exist, it had an unconvincing one-roll-of-film-per-family ring to it. In 1998, as Beijing worked on its Olympic bid, the skyline showed cranes in every direction, and when I came back for a visit in 2000 -- a year before Beijing was awarded the Games -- the Chaoyang neighborhood I knew so well had changed so dramatically that I got lost.

In some ways, the atmosphere is similar in Delhi today. India liberalized its economy in 1991, 13 years after Deng Xiaoping opened China's doors, and despite the differences between the two countries, it's often said that India is following in China's footsteps -- 10 or 15 years behind. The conventional wisdom from bankers and consultants has been that India's problems in building power plants, highways and ports can be offset by the strength of its institutional infrastructure -- namely, its democratic government, codified rule of law, free press and civil society. Moreover, as China's population ages, India's is getting younger, purportedly providing a "demographic dividend" that will see India become the world's labor force by 2030.

But while China's fear of losing face has helped it avoid complacency, India has concluded that its rise to become one of the world's economic powers is inevitable. As if it will be solved by magic, concern about the growing overpopulation problem has been supplanted by enthusiasm about the next generation's legion of workers. For four years after Delhi won the bid for the Commonwealth Games in 2003, India's senior officials turned a blind eye as the project stagnated, finally stepping in when it was too late to avoid humiliation. Only after a footbridge collapsed last month, injuring roughly two dozen workers and leaving several in critical condition, was it revealed that most members of the organizing committee were related. Meanwhile, the cost of the games is more than 100 times over initial estimates, according to one calculation.

The reason: Where China guards its reputation, India has an implacable faith in "jugaad" -- the Hindi word for making do -- even when that means putting up with patchwork or paying bribes. In that spirit, as the Commonwealth Games guests arrived last week, 1,000 workers scrubbed the Games Village clean while others hastily erected colorful billboards to obscure broken pits and tar-paper slums.

But the welcoming gift left by an anonymous laborer in a Games Village sink speaks volumes about the role of the demographic dividend in India's future. Unlike in China, where totalitarian repression served to instill respect for the common worker, at least at one time, in India minimum-wage laws cannot be implemented, and the lingering caste system means there is no prestige in manual labor. And even though the present United Progressive Alliance government has pushed through laws that guarantee 100 days of state-funded employment per year as well as the right to food and education for the poor, those welfare programs are not creating the skilled, literate workers who will turn India's masses into a strength rather than a liability.

The worst news, though, is that India's vaunted democratic institutions may be decaying instead of gathering strength. The Commonwealth Games were not derailed by public protests against spending billions of dollars on an ego trip while 700 million Indians survive on a few dollars a day. Rather, they were allegedly brought down by snowballing corruption and cronyism -- another type of "jugaad" -- according to the Indian government's Central Vigilance Commission.

At the same time, as the Supreme Court continued to argue that its judges are too respectable to be subject to laws forcing them to declare their assets for public scrutiny, a former law minister claimed to have proof that eight of the past 16 chief justices were corrupt. And despite new efforts to publicize the criminal records and outsize assets of politicians, the number of Parliament members who face charges including robbery, extortion and murder increased from 128 in the 2004 elections to 162 in 2009. The accused now account for nearly a third of the seats in the legislature, while the average assets of members grew to $1 million apiece from around $400,000 during the previous term.

That's jugaad, all right. But that kind of making do will not make India work.

Jason Overdorf is the senior India correspondent for GlobalPost.

For additional Outlook coverage of India, see Lally Weymouth's interview with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Miranda Kennedy's "In Delhi, doing as we do, not as we say."

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