India shuns poor in Commonwealth Games makeover


Two boys play in a shanty town in Bawana, on the outskirts of  Delhi.   Photo: Nita Bhalla
Two boys play in a shanty town in Bawana, on the outskirts of Delhi. Photo: Nita Bhalla

By Nita Bhalla NEW DELHI (AlertNet)
– As millions across the globe focus their attention on the World Cup in South Africa, the Indian capital New Delhi is busy preparing to host another international sporting event – the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Underground train stations and stadiums are being constructed, roads widened, flyovers erected, parking lots established, and buildings renovated ahead of the October 3-14 event.

Every day, thousands of construction workers brave soaring temperatures, weaving in and out of Delhi’s congested traffic, carrying slabs of concrete, digging drains or laying bricks. But social activists say government efforts to portray the city as a global sporting hub come at the expense of thousands of poor urban Indians who have been evicted, displaced or exploited as a result of the Games. "The scale and frequency of evictions and demolitions of informal settlements and slums has gained momentum in the run-up to the Games," said Shivani Chaudhry, associate coordinator of the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), an arm of the Habitat International Coalition. "Most evictions are generally carried out to construct roads, bridges, stadiums, and parking lots or under the guise of city beautification." Activists say at least 100,000 families have been forced from their homes, while many others – beggars, street vendors and rickshaw pullers – have lost their livelihoods due to a "clean-up" ahead of the Games. Construction workers are also being exploited with low wages and no legal rights, activists add. But organisers of the event say the claims by activists are exaggerated.

WORLD-CLASS The Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games will be the largest global sports event ever to be hosted in India. Around 10,000 athletes from 71 nations and territories will compete in 17 disciplines over 12 days. India is keen to put on an international event to match its image as a modernising, emerging economic giant – just as neighbouring China did when it hosted the 2008 Olympics. Authorities say the benefits to the burgeoning metropolis of 14 million people include vast infrastructure development, creation of jobs, increased tourism revenues and a city which will be "clean, beautiful, vibrant and world-class". "A lot of the infrastructure development which is happening – the roads, flyovers, airports and underground train stations – was part of Delhi’s long-term development plan … the Games just acted as a catalyst and brought forward some of the development," said Mike Hooper, CEO of the Commonwealth Games Federation. "All this infrastructure will make it much easier for people to move around … after all aren’t these things that people would want?"

But for many of the slum dwellers who were evicted as part of the city’s makeover, there is nothing "world-class" about the way they are living now. Many have been resettled in shanty towns far from their original homes, where there are few job opportunities and little infrastructure and services such as schools and clinics."We want to go back to our original homes," said Jilekha, a housewife whose family was one of 35,000 evicted from their homes on the banks of the Yamuna River in a clean-up project adjacent to the Commonwealth Games Village. Jilekha – now living in a sprawling shanty town in Bawana on the outskirts of Delhi – says thousands of families were resettled here by the government but their life has not been easy. "People have lost their jobs as many cannot commute two hours into Delhi and back every day, we have water problems, the schools here are not good and crime and drugs are a big problem in the colony," she said. Non-governmental organisations working with the homeless say many of those evicted have not been resettled or compensated and have been forced to rent rooms in already overcrowded slums or are still living under the flyovers which replaced their homes. In January, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik expressed concern about a series of demolitions of homeless shelters, adding that preparation for the Games seemed to be "one of the factors behind the closing down of a number of shelters".

WASTEFUL EXTRAVAGANCE? Tens of thousands of rural migrants have also been brought in for construction work, but civil rights activists say they have documented "widespread rights violations" at building sites. Groups like the Peoples’ Union for Democratic Rights and the Commonwealth Games Citizens for Workers, Women and Children, say abuses include low pay, poor safety, no housing, use of child labour, non-registration of workers and denial of social benefits. Deaths have also been reported, they say, adding that no compensation has been given to most of the families of the deceased. There are also reports that street vendors, rickshaw pullers, small shopkeepers and food stall owners have been evicted and lost their livelihoods – as well as thousands of beggars – as part of the revamp. But Lalit Bhanot, secretary-general of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, said he did not believe the claims by activists. "This is not connected with the Organising Committee, it is to do with the government … I don’t find all these things to be true," he said. Critics are also questioning the millions of dollars being spent on the event and whether authorities should reassess their priorities in a country like India where 46 percent of children under five years are malnourished. A recent report by HLRN said the $422 million budgeted cost for hosting the Games has been massively overshot, estimating the cost could be at least five times more. It predicted that India’s expenses may result in a severe financial legacy – and alleged that vital funds allocated for poor, marginalised communities had already been diverted to fund the event. "The colossal expenditure on the Games brings to light the priorities of the Indian government," said the report. "Is it ethically justifiable for a nation like India, with 450 million people living below the poverty line and some of the worst social indicators in the world, to host such an expensive event?"

To read the HLRN-HIC -SARP report on the CW Games, just clck here