The Commonwealth Games are often known as the “friendly games”, but New Delhi has little to smile about one month before the opening ceremony.
The city has undertaken huge infrastructure improvements ahead of the October 3 opening, ranging from building new metro lines and flyovers to renovating whole urban districts.
But with time ticking away, many of the civic projects are far from finished, and fears are growing that the sports venues will not be up to international competition standards.
The Commonwealth Games Federation has repeatedly warned organisers that ongoing work at stadiums has delayed the installation of electronic equipment essential for the smooth running of events.
Barefoot migrant workers toil at new metro stations and at rubble-strewn venues across the city, struggling to make progress as unusually heavy monsoon rains have hit in recent weeks.
Poor ticket sales, a lack of sponsors, security fears, corruption scandals and a major outbreak of dengue fever have also filled India’s newspapers with tales of woe.
The organising committee and the government are putting on a brave face, but hopes have faded that Delhi would bathe in the same type of positive light that Beijing enjoyed during the Olympic Games in 2008.
On Wednesday, a Times of India poll reported that 76% of Delhi residents felt the estimated $3-billion cost of the Games was unjustified, and 50% said preparations had severely disrupted their lives.
“It would be an understatement to describe the situation as alarming. It is calamitous,” the Telegraph newspaper quoted an unnamed senior official as saying.
Many of the delays have been blamed on crooked construction deals, while safety certificates for new buildings were also alleged to have been faked.
‘Blatant exercise in corruption’
Best-selling author Chetan Bhagat, writing recently in the Times, urged the public to boycott the Games to protest against the “most blatant exercise in corruption in independent India’s history”.
“Cheering for the loot fest would be a mistake,” he said.
New Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, reflected widespread official anxiety over the task ahead when she said at the weekend: “I can only pray and request the whole city and the country to pray.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inspected the main stadium on Sunday and called on organisers “to redouble their efforts” to be ready on time.
The list of top-quality athletes withdrawing from the Games has grown, though few have directly blamed Delhi’s troubled preparations.
Sprint champions Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell, tennis stars Lleyton Hewitt and Samantha Stosur, swimmer Stephanie Rice and cyclist Chris Hoy will all be missing — robbing the event of much international attention.
Australian former Olympic champion Dawn Fraser reflected nervousness among some foreigners when she voiced concerns the event could be hit by an attack similar to the massacre of athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Police and paramilitary troops are expected to keep a tight rein on spectators, and may even ban people from carrying cellphones and coins.
On Wednesday, Home Minister P Chidambaram met with top officials and said the security plan would again be reviewed on September 15.
Spirit among the home nation is unlikely to be lifted by a major haul of gold medals when the Games begin.
One top Indian prospect, shooter Rajyavardhan Rathore, who won an Olympic silver at Athens in 2004, has declined to take part due to what he said were unfair national selection policies.
However, the immovable deadline of October 3 has slowly started to show some benefits for the city’s long-suffering residents.
An impressive new airport terminal opened weeks ago, and trains from the airport into the city centre should start running this week. — Sapa-AFP