China and the World

Bad at games

And infrastructure too: why India struggles to build as big as China

Delhi dallies in the slow lane?

The races haven’t been run, the medals are yet to be awarded, but where it matters most, India’s political leaders are already being portrayed as also-rans.

The Commonwealth Games are only a few days away. But the dream of besting the Beijing Olympics is in tatters. The readily drawn conclusion: when it comes to pulling off spectacular mega-projects, India just can’t match the Chinese.

Media in India and the wider world has portrayed Delhi’s preparations as little short of a disaster. Metaphors abound: shoddy construction caused the ceiling to cave in at one venue last week. The day before a bridge to another of the venues collapsed, injuring several workers.

It’s a far cry from Beijing two years ago, when Olympic venues were completed months ahead of schedule. The apparently flawless, iconic infrastructure impressed the world.

Despite threats from several countries to withdraw, the New Delhi Games will in all likelihood go ahead on Sunday – though it was a close run thing. Several athletes (and Commonwealth head, the Queen of England) have nonetheless found reasons not to attend (the Games are held every four years for former members of the British Empire).

But the real story has been of one of delays and allegations of corruption. Contract skulduggery seems to have been widespread – graffiti near the site has rebranded it the ‘Corporate Wealth Games’. Some of the reports of money-spinning schemes have been so brazen they’re hard to believe. Who would have thought organisers could get away with (allegedly) paying $80 per roll for toilet paper?

And the gravy train doesn’t stop there. The Times of India reports that all of the quality certificates inspected by the Central Vigilance Commission (the government’s anti-corruption body) had been forged. “It is certain to have led to very big gains for vendors and contractors,” an unnamed anti-corruption official told the newspaper. It has also led to substandard concrete being used in construction, according to reports.

Perhaps that’s why some observers are estimating the final cost of hosting the event will end up as high as $9 billion, 22 times more than the original $400 million price tag. It’s reported too that $165 million in cash has come from (supposedly inviolate) funds that had been ring fenced for 2.3 million of the city’s poorest population (members of disadvantaged castes and tribes).

China is no stranger to corruption, of course. (WiC has reported on the more prominent cases and it’s certain that some of the approximately $46 billion spent on the Olympics was misused). But graft was still much less an issue in Beijing two years ago.

Put it down to a high degree of centralised authority. China’s leaders were determined not to lose face on their big day, and it was clear they had the power to punish those that embarrassed them. Only the most foolhardy official would have missed the message sent by the sacking and arrest of Liu Zhihua, Beijing’s vice-mayor in charge of construction, two years ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

Few found much to criticise about the Beijing Olympiad from a construction perspective. The city benefitted too: it got new subway lines, an airport terminal and a high-speed railway. Shanghai’s experience with this year’s Expo is a similar story: grand planning, expert execution.

Indian officials have been able to deliver on some major projects in the past, but only where lines of responsibility have been clear (as with the capital’s new subway system). But experiences like New Delhi’s ongoing Commonwealth Games ordeal are not uncommon, where no one seems to be in charge.

When China’s political heavyweights decide to build, nothing, not even the legal system, presents much of an obstacle. It’s a huge advantage when it comes to the hardest part of infrastructure building: getting the land. Less exciting, of course, for those living on the land in question: when officials wanted to evict residents from areas earmarked for stadiums (NGOs estimate 1.2 million people were moved), there was little Beijingers could do about it.

It is also unusual for ordinary citizens to challenge the government successfully in court. That’s why there are so many stories of Chinese people holding out in ‘nail houses’ to prevent demolition or, in more extreme cases, setting themselves on fire to protest about inadequate compensation.

India’s courts, though overburdened, are more independent. It took New Delhi officials five years to fight public interest litigation before they were able to demolish 100,000 slum households. Legal challenges so delayed the field hockey ground (the Shivaji Stadium) that organisers have now admitted it won’t be ready for the Games.

To Chinese bureaucrats such an outcome would have been unthinkable. When the IOC (International Olympics Committee) was worried about air quality officials simply shut down factories and ordered half the city’s cars off the road.

In India, the rhetoric about the Delhi Games continues to look more grandiose than the actual achievements. As TIME reported last week, career politician and chairman of the Commonwealth Games’ organising committee, Suresh Kalmadi even told the assembled media that the event will be “better than the Beijing Olympics”. As he did so, he did his best to ignore the sound of frantic construction behind him…


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