NEW DELHI — With 12 months to go until the start of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, the city risks a fiasco rather than a proud moment that puts the country on the path to hosting the Olympics.
This stark warning came from the head of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Michael Fennell who sent an urgent letter to the local organising committee in September lamenting the lack of progress.
Preparations across the vast city of 14 million people are unmissable, however, with multiple building sites, billboards and new transport links serving as a reminder to everyone of the October 3-14, 2010 event.
Indian Sports Minister Manohar Singh Gill has compared the Games to an Indian wedding. ‘Preparations go on until the last minute, but everything ultimately falls into place,’ he said recently.
Some slums have been cleared, beggars are set to be tackled and Delhi’s often abrasive residents are being groomed on how to welcome foreign visitors to the capital.
Authorities even intend to help prevent the infamous ‘Delhi belly,’ with a plan called ‘Safe food, tasty food’ under consideration by India’s food safety agency that would rate restaurants gold, silver or bronze depending on their food safety and hygiene performance.
For now though, the main focus is on building after an Indian government report in August said that work on 14 of the 19 sports venues was running late, while nine transport projects also risked not being completed in time.
‘Our concerns are such that unless there is significant change in the management culture and operation of the organising committee these Games will fail from an operational perspective,’ wrote Fennell in his damning letter.
‘The CGF is extremely worried about the organising committee’s ability to deliver the Games to any comparable standard to that of the last two editions of the Games in Manchester (2002) and Melbourne (2006).’
The Games, the biggest multi-sport event to be staged in India since the 1982 Asian Games, will feature 71 nations and territories including Britain, Australia and Jamaica.
Since the disparaging reports on progress were leaked to the press, the government has been at pains to stress that all work will be finished in time.
It has also sought to allay fears about security following deadly attacks in Mumbai last year and a string of recent travel warnings about militant activity in the country.
‘There is absolutely no doubt that the venues will be ready,’ sports secretary Sindushree Khullar told the media last week during a two-day security conference for participating countries.
Top police and security officials reassured delegates about preparations to keep Delhi safe during the Games, which will see 15-30 heads of state in attendance.
‘We are committed to hosting a safe and secure Commonwealth Games,’ Khullar said.
Officials have even dropped a proposal to provide high-speed Internet wi-fi services across the Indian capital during the Games because they feared militants would use the network.
With all the investment committed, Indian politicians have a lot riding on the event, which at 1.6 billion dollars will be the most expensive Commonwealth Games ever, surpassing the 1.1 billion dollars spent by Melbourne in 2006.
And if it helps India to host the Olympics one day — there are suggestions it might bid for the 2020 event — it will be seen as money well spent in some quarters.
For the people of Delhi, the focus of the Games is set to bring benefits in the form of new sporting facilities and improved transport, though not everyone is happy.
‘India could have spent all the money to open at least a million schools and playgrounds in villages and cities,’ said Sandhya Mridul, a primary school teacher.
And in a country where comparisons with China are never far away, there is anxiety about following the Beijing Olympics last year, which were hailed universally as the best ever.
‘I hope we don’t make a fool of ourselves before the world. Hosting the Games is like opening the doors to the world to allow them to examine our strengths and weaknesses,’ said Rajiv Narain, 74, the owner of a jewellery store.
‘Even if we do half of what China did for the Olympics we will be successful and Indians will be proud of their country,’ added Mohammed Yusuf, 21, a fine art student.