Yes, truly Indian and a good thing, too

Yes, I felt a bit embarrassed when New York Times headlines announced quagmire after quagmire in Delhi:

“India Tries to Save Troubled Sports Event,” and “Hopes Fade for Success …” What really got my hackles up was a photograph of a faceless, dark-skinned laborer seemingly sinking in muddy water. To exacerbate the damning photo was a caption that announced: “… an organizer shrugged off complaints of dirty facilities, saying Indians had lower hygiene standards than Westerners.” After washing my hands of the Times’ condescending ink, I felt a surge of hope rise out of the mythical Indian quicksand.

You may wonder, “How can anyone believe that this staggering example of corruption, delay, and shoddiness is a source of hope?”

Please consider the merits of a situation that is truly Indian:

Compared with China’s mechanistic, assembly-line model, which had American commentators marveling at Chinese efficiency and discipline, India’s organic chaos unnerves the orderly West; it challenges assumptions and worldviews.

India presents an alternative approach that balances the ambition of a superpower emerging on the world stage with that of a centuries-old civilization that still has, for better and worse, most of its citizens living in centuries-old ways. The Indian experience demands that consumers of fun and games confront the reality of how billions live.

Unlike other Olympic and Commonwealth Games (CWG) venues that are all gloss and glamour, the less-than world-class facilities in Delhi (and the Indian organizers’ ineptness at media spin) illuminate the gap between the world’s haves and have-nots. It gives me hope that, with the spotlight on them, Indian government officials will actively acknowledge that mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue are not like buggy software; simply put, these life-shortening diseases are not acceptable.

Furthermore, the games themselves call into question why governments (Indian and non-Indian) spend hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions) for a two-week celebration of Gatorade-chugging athletics when hundreds of millions of people (if not billions) go without clean water generation after generation. While it may be wishful thinking,  rather than celebrating gold-silver-bronze medals, those responsible for improving hygiene will celebrate the fact that clean, potable water is a right of all the world, not only a privilege of the West.

When all goes well (“Hooray, India delivered the games to Prince Charles and colonial friends!”), we applaud the power of the machine. But it is only when the human scale takes precedence that we can bask in the wonder that was, is, and can be India.

Perhaps it is best to close with a headline from the day after the games began: “Frustrations Aside, Indians Bask in Opening of Games.”

Dr. Rajesh C. Oza is a change management consultant.


No, they were just disgraceful

The glaring holes in the conduct of the Games cannot be glossed over as the work of a centuries-old civilization whose citizens live in centuries-old ways. Our old civilization built the Madurai Meenakshi and Tanjore Brihadeeswara temples. It built the Jaisalmer fort without mortar to bind the stones and the Udaipur Lake Palace. What can we build now? A $2 million footbridge that collapses.

We are the have-nots? With that billion dollar bill? We are the haves-that-stole-from-the-have-nots. And CWG 2010 illuminates the gap between those whohave pride in the high standards of their achievement and those who have nota shred of shame, sense of responsibility, or integrity.

The issue goes much beyond drinking water and dengue outbreak. It is about the sub-standard labor and material in the construction, about the huge amounts wasted in last-minute fixes and re-fixes; about suspicious contracts; about “irregularities” in ticket sales that left those who had booked online without any, while seats went empty; about embezzlement and poor delivery; about corruption drawing a long and indelible trail from London to Lutyen’s Delhi.

It’s about the sports minister brushing aside wrestling coach Satpal; about ignoring past performers like P.T. Usha and Milkha Singh. How long will it take for the babus and netas to drop  today’s winners by the wayside?

Let’s not worry about “unnerving the orderly West.” Let’s worry about the inevitable tax hikes to defray the cost of the mammoth exercise; about making up the cash unscrupulous officials added to their invisible bank accounts.

There are lessons to be learned? That is a multi-colored romantic view. In a more likely scenario, questions on venality will be raised by the media, committees will be formed by the government “to look into the matter,” a perfect ten will be scored in the blame game, and officials will be applauded for the “success” of the Games. Announcements about $2.5 billion worth of business and 2 million jobs being generated are already out. There is even talk of hosting the 2024 Olympic Games.

There will be no punitive action. “International events involve large-scale expenditure,” will be the new Games anthem. A chronic bout of amnesia will cover broken turfs, loose starting blocks, contaminated pool water, crumbling scoreboards, and malfunctioning security devices that sent foreign delegates to hospital with serious eye injuries. No one will hear of the 70,000+ workers and the homeless swept out of the city with a stern warning to stay away.

The Games made good history—because India’s boxers, wrestlers, shooters, and archers dug themselves out of the hole of apathy to compete and win. Quintessentially Indian? Yes—the modern Indian politician, for whom the ultimate high is using an opportunity to further his interests. Not Humanity-Equality-Destiny, but Rise-Grab-Run.

Geeta Padmanabhan is an author and activist from Chennai.

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