Durga Sahu is shining tiles outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The swanky Delhi venue is the location for the opening and closing ceremonies of the two-week Commonwealth Games that began this week, an event that was supposed to see India stepping onto the international stage the same way Beijing did when it hosted the 2008 Olympics.
Curious to see how one of the thousands of workers involved in preparing the venues feels about the event, I ask one worker I see while I'm on a guided media visit what he thinks about an extravaganza the government has dubbed the ‘pride of the nation.’
But Sahu doesn’t really want to talk about the Games and I have to press him to respond.
‘What pride are you talking about? This stadium is being built on the graves of poor people like me,’ he says. ‘I want to move away, but where will I go? I have two sons and a daughter to feed and there’s no way I can sustain them without working part-time here as well.’
While much of the international media’s attention in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony Sunday was on the sometimes woeful conditions of the athletes’ village and speculation was rife over whether the Games might in fact be cancelled, Sahu is just one of an estimated 3 million people who will have been displaced by the time the event closes.
‘I’ve been living in this area behind the stadium since 1968 and have been supporting my family by selling fruits from my cart,’ Sahu says. ‘But they demolished the whole colony and so overnight we were left homeless. I had to send the family back to my village in Orissa.’
He’s far from alone. Among the 3 million are between 1.2 and 1.5 million migrant workers as well as an estimated 100,000 families whose homes were bulldozed to make way for bridges and parking lots needed for the Games.
The colony where Sahu and his family used to live was located near the Sewa Nagar railway crossing that now overlooks the glittering Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. It was home to more than 600 families for decades.
‘Now buses and cars are staying where my home was for more than 30 years. I feel as if some earthquake came and my whole family perished,’ says Mantu Chand, a fruit seller just outside the stadium. He’s been forced to move his family to rented accommodation in Khajuri, some 40 kilometres away in the north-east of the city, where he says he visits them once a week.
Indeed, as I travel around the city, it seems every venue I visit seems to have a story of displacement or destruction attached to it.
‘The Delhi government isn’t removing poverty, it’s removing poor people,’ says Sarita Devi, who saw the Madrasi jhuggi (slum) she lived in near Barapullah Nallah Bridge demolished to make way for a flyover connecting the Games village in the east to venues in Central Delhi.
According to the government’s Modified Relocation Policy, which came into effect in May this year following an outcry from non-government organizations over the way the poor were being treated, around 7,900 flats are being created in Bawana on the western outskirts of the nation’s capital. However, those who have been displaced are reportedly reluctant to settle down there as there’s no direct bus or metro service from the new settlement to the main city, meaning some would be forced to travel about four hours a day to get to work.
According to Amjad Hassan of the Delhi Unorganized Construction Workers Union, an NGO that specializes in the rights of day labourers and the displaced, around 40 localities have been demolished in the run up to the games. Hassan says that about three-quarters of those who have lost their homes in the demolition drive since 2006 haven’t been given anywhere to live. ‘And those who have, have been pushed far from the city, depriving them of a regular source of income,’ Hassan adds.
A recent report by the Housing and Land Rights Network, a global think tank with offices in Delhi, entitled ‘The 2010 Commonwealth Games: Whose Wealth? Whose Commons?’ is scathing over the way the Games have been organized.
The whole process related to the Games ‘has been essentially underscored by secrecy, unavailability of information, lack of government accountability and unconstitutional activities, with evidence of long-term economic, social and environmental costs for the nation, and specifically for the city of Delhi,’ it says.
‘Workers in unorganized sectors contribute a lot to the development of Delhi,’ says Thaneswar Dayal Adigaur, a local activist working for the rights of those employed in the sector. ‘They have a substantial stake in Delhi’s economy and they have the right to live and sustain themselves in the capital. How can you throw them out like that?’
Concerns have also been raised over the conditions experienced by those who have managed to find construction jobs. It’s been reported that labourers haven’t been receiving the correct wages and that many have been forced to work in unsafe and unhygienic conditions.
Savita, who has been employed to clean up around the Games village, says she is usually paid Rs 100 ($2.2) instead of the promised Rs 150 ($ 3.2) for the 10 to 12 hours work she does each day. Her male counterparts, she said, are paid twice that, although all have to live in tents with no sanitation and no childcare arrangements.
‘Construction companies and other agencies bring labourers from poor states like Bihar Uttar Pradesh promising high wages but they never fulfill their promises,’ Hassan says. ‘Unfortunately, government agencies and officials who are supposed to ensure workers’ rights also cheat them by taking commission from the construction agents.’
Most of the street vendors and day labourers who have been part of the construction work have been encouraged to leave the city if they don’t have any proof of identity, meaning the roadside eateries that act as the main source of food for the poor, migrant workers and students have been shut.
Karim Ansari, a migrant worker living in Pandav Nagar, is packing his belongings up to head for Samashtipur in Bihar.‘Suddenly I feel like a foreigner in this country—like I don’t have any rights to live and stay wherever I want,’ he says.
The English language daily Hindustan Times in a recent article titled ‘Labourers deported for Games clean-up’ said that ‘the police are forcing daily-wagers and migrant labourers to leave Delhi in a drive to apparently clean the city for Commonwealth Games.’
But it’s not just the immediate threat of demolition that’s of concern to activists—future displacement could take on an environmental dimension as well.
The Games Village has been constructed on the floodplains of the river Yamuna, a decision that some scientists warn could have devastating consequences. One scientist with the Meteorological Department of India in Delhi, who asked to remain anonymous, said: ‘The construction of this Games Village on the river bank right opposite the Akshardham Temple increases the probability of floods in Delhi because it has reduced the floodplain area’ that effectively controls the flooding.
All of this construction has come at enormous financial cost, too.The original estimate for hosting the event was $2.5 billion, a price tag that has since more than doubled according to an estimate by the Business Standard. This makes the 2010 Commonwealth Games the most expensive Commonwealth Games ever, costing far more than the previous games in Melbourne in 2006, which came in at about US$1.1 billion.
The enormous price tag has raised some eyebrows, including those of former Sports Minister and leader of the ruling Congress party Mani Shankar Aiyar. ‘Even if only 10 percent of the total expenses were spent on providing better facilities and training for our children, no one could stop us from becoming a sports power like China,’ he says, adding that he would be ‘unhappy’ if the Games was a success.
‘For all our great pretensions, can a country where 28.3 percent of the people still live below the poverty line really afford this kind of expenditure on a sporting event of this kind? Where the amount being spent is…four times the amount being spent annually on the entire National Rural Health Mission?’ ask Boria Mazumdar and Nalin Mehta in the just-published book Sellotape Legacy: Delhi and Commonwealth Games.‘Wouldn’t we have been better off putting these vast resources where they were really needed?’
But Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the Commonwealth Games organising committee,says such concerns are misplaced and argues that the Games ‘will create a world class sporting infrastructure and serve the various non cricketing sports in the country.’
To many, though, it’s a dubious assertion. Some of the wrestling centres this writer visited, for example, were in appalling condition. Sanjay Pehlwan Akhada, of the Sanjay wrestling club, which is located seven kilometres east of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, says that wrestlers at his club are forced to stay in huts even though two people from his centre are taking part in the Games.
‘If the government helped then the future of wrestling would be bright,’ says Rabindra Sharma, a wrestler from a village in Haryana.
Pradeep Magazine, a leading sports journalist, says he regrets that ‘the wonderful opportunity that came India’s way to develop a sporting culture and infrastructure has been wasted by the Indian government and the Organizing Committee.’
He adds: ‘It’s foolish to compare the Commonwealth Games with the Beijing Olympics.’
Despite such criticism, Kalmadi insists the Commonwealth Games will be a bigger success than the Beijing Olympics and that they will showcase India as an emerging power.
Yet the scenes broadcast around the globe just last month of unfinished and dirty accommodation and newly-built infrastructure collapsing are a depressing sight for a young generation of Indians who have had their hopes built up for a world class event.
‘It was a wonderful opportunity for India to showcase its modern face, but the Organizing Committee has failed the new generation,’ says Prerna Raj, a Delhi University student. ‘It feels as if we’ve been taken back to the India of past…I’ve lost all interest in this event.’
Author Mazumdar, a sports historian, says the debacle has hurt India’s brand. ‘Brand India continues to suffer…With (these) recent experiences it will be difficult for India to get an opportunity to hold any international events of importance in the near future.’
In the meantime, athletes from the 71 countries participating will eventually return to their home countries, organizers will rest easy in their upscale bungalows and Sahu will be forced to spend his nights sleeping on his fruit cart.
‘It’s humiliating to work here,’ he says. ‘But I have to support my family somehow.’