Delhi streets deserted as opening approaches

Delhi resembled a city under curfew on Sunday ahead of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games with the Indian government determined no further embarrassments should blight the troubled event.

The $6-billion multi-sports gathering was intended as a display India’s soft power to go along with the country’s growing economic strength but a series of calamitous events over the last few weeks have turned it into a public relations disaster.

Corruption charges, an attack by suspected militants that wounded two tourists, a dengue fever epidemic, a filthy Games village and the collapse of a footbridge have tarnished India’s image, questioning its ability to host a world class event.

Organisers are hoping to put all that behind them over the 12 days of sporting competition between mostly former British colonies, starting with what they have promised will be a spectacular opening ceremony at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Sunday evening.

“Despite all the infrastructure concerns, tonight is the opening ceremony to the Commonwealth Games,” Australia’s chef de mission Steve Moneghetti told a news conference on Sunday.

“It’s exciting and there is a great buzz around the village. This is a spectacular moment in Indian sport.”

With all commercial premises shut down by city government order and a huge security operation under way on Sunday morning, tens of thousands of armed police kept watch over deserted streets in the normally bustling city of 16-million.

Security concerns have been one of the major issues to attach themselves to the Games, particularly after the armed militant attack on Mumbai which killed more than 100 people in November 2008.

Health concerns have also caused some athletes to withdraw from the Games and on Sunday GB Pant hospital confirmed the first case of dengue in the athletes’ village, Indian lawn bowls team member Ruptu Gogoi.

“This is the first case of dengue that has come to us,” a hospital spokesperson told Reuters. “In all probability he got it from outside the village. The guy has been in Delhi since March. He is stable now. We are planning to release him tomorrow.”

About 6 000 athletes are have taken up residence in the village, which was swiftly cleaned up after being described as uninhabitable by early arriving athletes last week.

The fall-out from the problems continue to rumble on and the city’s chief minister launched another broadside over the state of the village when the city took possession.

“Sixty percent of the village was unliveable when it was handed over to us … we made the village first rate all in one week,” Sheila Dikshit told NDTV.

“It was terrible. And unfortunately we were all complacent about it. In four days we were able to change it around, get the beds there, sheets there… “

Those of Delhi’s residents who did venture out on Sunday were able to enjoy one of the infrastructure legacies from the Games for the first time on Sunday when a new 15km stretch of the city’s metro was opened.

“This was the most difficult line that we completed, and we were able to meet the target set for us. It should have been completed in March next year, we completed it five-six months ahead of schedule,” said Anuj Dayal, the spokesman for the Metro.

The metro’s first phase opened in 2005 within a budget of $2,3-billion and nearly three years ahead of schedule.

The second phase, which cost about $4,25-billion and boasts a high-speed airport link beneath the capital’s clogged and at times chaotic roads, has now been finished in time for the Games. The airport line has been finished but could not get safety clearance in time for the Games, Dayal said.

Britain’s Prince Charles arrived in Delhi on Saturday to attend the opening ceremony on behalf of his mother, Queen Elizabeth, the head of the Commonwealth.

The sporting competition starts with the women’s 200m freestyle swimming heats on Monday morning and weightlifting and gymnastic medals are also up for grabs on the first day. – Reuters

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