Amid rancorous debate over alleged squandering of public funds for national vanity, India's capital is frenetic with construction activity in a race against time for the opening of the ninth Asian Games here.

In the biggest building operation since the British Raj created New Delhi as an imperial monument a half century ago, approximately 100,000 Indian laborers have been working day and night finishing construction or renovation of 17 stadiums and erecting new hotels, apartment buildings, highway overpasses and roads for the sports spectular that will run for 14 days beginning Nov. 19.

Costs for the event range from the $84 million -- the government says it will spend for the sports facilities alone -- to $1 billion that critics of the undertaking say will be spent for the entire project, including new roads, housing and other infrastructure.

The higher estimate -- which has been appearing in grafitti around town complaining that "Asiad monster eats 10 billion rupees" -- is approximately equivalent to the monthly income of 200 million rural Indians who live in poverty.

More conservative estimates put the cost of the Asian Games anywhere between $200 million and $800 million, although Indian officials say that because projects are being funded by many governmental departments that would have initiated them eventually anyway, it cannot guess the cost.

Responding to parliamentary critics who have charged that the government's priorities are twisted and that the money would be better spent to bring clean water and electricity to India's peasantry, Indian sports officials reply that the outlay is infinitesimal against the country's $29 billion national budget and will be repaid in enhanced prestige and stature for India throughout the world.

"I agree that this money could be used to develop wells in the villages and improve the plight of the poor. But in my opinion, spending this money will be well worth it if it gives a shot in the arm to Indian sports," Shankaran Nair, deputy chairman and secretary general of India's sports organizing committee said in an interview.

Nair said that to stay abreast in the world of sports, India must be prepared to make substantial investments. He noted as an example that India lost its undisputed world leadership in field hockey when countries in the West developed artificial turf and were able to play year around. Now India has artificial turf and is reasserting its dominance in the sport, he added.

Having built games facilities capable of accommodating teams from 34 countries participating in 21 different events, Nair said, India will have put its New Delhi complex within 90 percent of Olympic standards, meaning that it will be in a position to bid for the 1992 Olympic Games.

He recalled that when Monique Berlioux, director of the International Olympic Committee, was here on an inspection tour last March, she said India could be a serious candidate for the Olympics, providing it builds more stadiums for practice and training.

However, Nair conceded that "chances are not bright" for India getting the 1992 Olympics, partly because of a virtual monopoly on the games by developed countries and partly because New Delhi still does not have the communications and transportation network needed for the bigger games nor enough hotel rooms.

The Asian Games, hosted by India last 31 years ago, have been marred from the start by controversy, political intrigue and charges of corruption and bungling--not uncommon phenomena in India's contentious political life.

New Delhi was picked as the site in 1978, when Morarji Desai became prime minister following the Janata Party's defeat of Indira Gandhi, but when Charan Singh assumed the premiership in 1979, he called a halt to the preparations, saying the money would be better used on social programs in rural India.

In 1980, when Gandhi returned to power, she reactivated the project and launched a crash construction program to have the sports facilities ready in time. The sports committee, for the most part, has caught up with the schedule but not without embarrassing incidents.

The collapse of a highway overpass being built for the "Asiad" raised charges that corners were being cut on construction standards and that adulterated cement was being used. Disclosure that a roof over the main swimming pool was unsafe because of faulty placement of pylons resulted in scrapping the roof.

When the lights to the new Jawaharlal Nehru soccer stadium were first turned on, they disrupted power in a large segment of New Delhi, and even now they cause brownouts in nearby neighborhoods.

Even the games' mascot, a 15-month-old elephant named Appu, became the object of controversy when the circus that was training the animal was accused of putting it through painful exercises in its hurry to have it ready to perform during the opening ceremonies. Asian Games officials canceled the agreement with the circus and said there would be no mascot.