UK newspapers have been flooded this week and last by reports of the Commonwealth Games’ venue literally caving in and collapsing, athletes have deemed their village accommodation “filthy” and terrorists have apparently threatened attacks. Thanks to the late monsoon this year, floods are now a fear, and the Games’ venue has been choked by a cloud of toxic insect repellent due to further fears of an outbreak of the potentially fatal dengue fever because of mosquitoes being drawn to the floods’ stagnant water.
Questions have been raised as to whether the event can take place, as athletes have reconsidered flying out to the competition.
Rather than invite criticism, the Commonwealth Games of New Delhi, India were meant to set new benchmarks for other Host nations.
The “Best Commonwealth Games Ever” – India declared they would “build state-of-the-art sporting and city infrastructure….create a suitable environment and opportunities for the involvement of the citizens in the Games; showcase the culture and heritage of India; project Delhi as a global destination and India as an economic power; and leave behind a lasting legacy.”
Man in the Tiruchirapalli district, India. Photo By: Nancy Butler.
Government officials launched an “ecological code” for the Games, claiming that they would be a “Green Games” and that the new, excellent infrastructure and facilities could be used by the society and the general public for generations to come; a showcase of urban sustainable development.
And yet, preparations for the Games, in all their different manifestations, have already resulted in an irreversible alteration in the social, spatial, economic, and environmental dimensions of the city of New Delhi. The environmental and social challenges being faced right now are vast and the true implications of the CWG seem to be lost.
The site of the CWG lies on the floodplain of the Yamuna River, a major tributary in Northern India that flows through many Indian provinces into the Ganges, including New Delhi.
A floodplain defines a river and the surrounding city. Keeping houses and other buildings away from the river in New Delhi is extremely important because the city regularly suffers serious flooding. They have occurred in 1978, 1988, 1995, 1998 and 2008 and are of a devastating nature; the construction of the Games Village has already caused a drop in the ground water table.
New Delhi is also in a high risk zone for earthquakes and the sand in the floodplain makes it one of the most unstable places for a structure if an earthquake were to occur.
Along with the risk of the buildings being destroyed by earthquakes or swept away in floods, New Delhi also needs the water that comes from beneath the floodplain. Every monsoon, the floodplain is recharged and water is pulled from the ground and the city’s people use it to live. The city’s population growth means that the demand for water will only continue to rise and so, by concretizing and building on the floodplain, New Delhi is cutting itself off from a vital source of water.
The river is an important culture in the Hindu tradition, representing the Goddess Yami and the powers attributed to her, and as such, bathing, prayer and death ceremonies are common.
The activities on the river do not stop there, however, as modern times have brought the disposal of hazardous material and raw human waste into the water, in fact 1.5 billion liters of raw sewage is added to the river daily.
It seems the Western model of development has been embraced and followed in India, as millions of migrants have poured into the city searching for work to escape the poverty of rural life in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Our mistakes – mainly poorly planned industrialization – also seem to have been repeated. Serious environmental impacts are the consequence and the condition of the slums into which families have had to move has worsened as the population has grown; like the Western world did once upon a time, India hasn’t focused on the rural countryside to lessen the mass migrations to cities and isn’t promoting the conservation of resources enough.
Now, with the construction of the site for the CWG, the impact on the river and its surrounding area has worsened. A thousand trees have been felled and the inhabitants of the slums and houses have been forced to leave their homes to make way for the Games’ required stadiums and amenities.
“Construction related to the CWG is bringing in migrants from outside Delhi and adding good amount of slums to the city,” A.K. Sengupta, the national professional officer, sustainable development and healthy environment, WHO, warned in back in April this year.
Nearly 30 percent of Delhites live in slums. While the slums have never been of good condition, they have provided a roof over the heads of many families. Slums have become an integral part of New Delhi as it has developed and when the CWG offered construction jobs, more families gave up farming to head there. With every shopping mall, house, highway and skyscraper that has been built with the migrants’ help to represent the new, more prosperous India, a slum has arisen to accommodate the new inhabitants. Efforts to demolish those slums to create the right image of New Delhi to CWG visitors has only pushed thousands of migrant workers and their families into the very structures they are building to squat and survive.
Women in India. Photo By: Nancy Butler.
Indeed in the five years from 2003 to 2008 the CWG project has demolished close to 350 slum clusters that housed nearly 300,000 people. Only about one third of these families have been resettled. Those who have not been resettled are now facing an uncertain future. Some are being hidden by Indian officials behind curtains and other apparatus, so that the expectant world viewers do not see them on programs covering the Games. Most evictions were generally carried out under the guise of city “beautification” and urban renewal measures, but it is not hard to link the CWG development to degradation of the river and worsening misery in poor communities and see that the project has far from inspired any kind of rehabilitation. The Yamuna Riverbank School was included in the demolition while the children stood by and watched the bulldozers move in. The school was founded for 180 slum children living on the banks of the Yamuna River on the outskirts of New Delhi.
India’s growth on all fronts is happening very rapidly; the nation is modernizing and developing while the population continues to rise. In the midst of the global financial crisis, India’s economy is growing positively and the country is becoming more and more attractive as a hub for international business. However, hidden behind this rapid progression are clear costs – to India’s environments and already marginalized communities. Both seem to be lost in the development, forgotten, and to an outsider they appear to be a burden to India, which is hiding or removing them in the rush to seem prepared for the approaching Games this Sunday.
There has been ongoing debate regarding the legality of the development needed for the CWG: it is widely known that the Indian Government has tried for some time to build in the area around Yamuna and the Games will open doors to further development. Critics claim that environmental impact assessment norms have been violated: environmental cases are pending over the thousand trees that were felled, while many people have been injured and killed during construction.
With the CWG approaching in just a few days, rather than addressing these issues, the pressure is on India to ensure the accommodation for us foreigners is ready, clean and safe to make good of their £1.6 billion investment into the stadiums and amenities.
Iwan Thomas, a British Olympic Athlete is quoted in the UK’s Sun newspaper as saying “Many athletes have worked hard for months (for the CWG) and now they have all these concerns for their safety… As an athlete you have to concentrate on yourself and be very focused.”
Does this give them and us an excuse for arrogance?
As much as the Indian Government has a legal and moral commitment to its people and its environment, we have a responsibility to regard India’s preparedness (or lack of) for the CWG with fair and rational eyes and offer our support.
£1.6 billion does not take away the fact that India is a developing country in a global economic slowdown. In April 2010 the Delhi finance minister confirmed: “We are broke.” In fact, in a bid to afford the final phases of the project Indian officials have put up bus fares and the water tariff, withdrawn subsidy on LPG cylinders and increased VAT on a number of items. The city budget for 2010-11 has increased several direct and indirect taxes. Land prices have escalated in the Trans-Yamuna area of the city, so New Delhi has become a more expensive city because of the Games. It is not unusual in New Delhi to see children working and businesses straying away from their health and safety responsibilities because this is just how it is – most of the people living directly on the Yamuna are struggling for their basic survival.
A UK website states that “Of the estimated 300,000 workers engaged in construction projects, 100,000 will be unskilled; 10,000 of whom will be women and their 20,000 children. There is rampant exploitation of these workers. This includes low pay, unsafe working conditions, lack of housing, use of child labor, non-registration of workers and denial of social security benefits.”
However, in India, those same 300,000 workers would be grateful of the accommodation that is there waiting for the CWG athletes they built it for, as now, even those involved in the construction for the Games have gone – disappeared behind the smiling tiger.
To them any accommodation would be appreciated and this is why they accept what we regard as poor working conditions, low pay and exploitation – to survive. Equally, this is the accepted culture in India: children do work and it is seen as a way of educating and learning respect; a way of life as much as a way to bring money into the family. While the majority of British children were in school or playing, India’s children have worked hard for as little as £1.30 a day on the construction site for the Commonwealth Games Stadium and workers have been paid way below the minimum wage while being forced to live and work in what we regard substandard conditions, even under the tarpaulin on the construction sites.
This is what the British media should be addressing, to raise much needed awareness. While, instead of passing judgment, those involved in the Games – sponsors, organizers, etc – and the International Businesses moving into India, should be using their wealth and power to aid the implementation of improvements needed to serve the long-term gain of Indian society. Those that are able, in partnership with India, need to put their own profits back into better planning for the future, so that urban health is positively impacted, conditions are improved and the environment is conserved. While the Games and its competitors will be “there today and gone tomorrow” it is the environment and the people that will suffer from the poor planning that has occurred for many years to come.
We need to do this quickly, as The Formula One Grand Prix is also scheduled in Bangalore for 2011 – the first time a Grand Prix has ever taken place in India, to ensure it doesn’t end in equal disaster.
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