Can flaws in India Commonwealth Games spark reform?

Many Indians hope the missteps leading up to the India Commonwealth Games, which begin in Delhi Sunday, will add momentum to efforts to reform governance.

Manish Swarup/AP
Canadian team athletes strike poses during the flag hoisting ceremony of their country at the Commonwealth Games village, in New Delhi, India, Friday. The Commonwealth Games are scheduled to begin Sunday.

A bright, young sports medicine doctor, Rajat Chauhan moved his family from London back to India four years ago so he could help his nation prepare for next week’s Commonwealth Games. But since then he has grown so disillusioned because of the missteps leading up to the games that he plans to take a vacation out of Delhi while it hosts the event.

“The problems [start] once the public sector enters in in any way,” says Dr. Chauhan. “Here, the culture of politics is so bad. It’s just about making money here, and if they are not corrupt, they are simply incompetent.”

Like Chauhan, many Indian citizens are hopping mad over the problems that have marred preparations for the Games. They are supposed to showcase India as an emerging player on the international stage, but allegations of corruption among the organizers, missed deadlines, and shoddy construction of venues have sent a different message abroad.

Among the many embarrassments, so far: a collapsing footbridge, an athletes' village too filthy and incomplete to house early arrivals, and an audit that found safety tests at various sporting venues were fudged.

Contradictions in modern India

At home, the Games have highlighted a growing contradiction about modern India. Even as its companies compete aggressively in the global marketplace, the country’s public sector remains “third world,” with a creaking bureaucracy and crooked politicians.

“Very soon I believe there will be a public anger outburst against politicians who are mismanaging everything in India, including sports,” says Yashwant Deshmukh, an Indian pollster. “They didn’t involve the rest of India [in the Games]. They wanted to keep it for themselves so they could make money off it.”

Still, many Indians like Chauhan wanted to get involved. He had already served on the Cricket World Cup committee and faced a choice: Stay in London for the 2012 Olympics or head to Delhi for the Commonwealth Games.

“I thought I could make a far bigger difference in Delhi, because I saw there was no one,” he says.

So he came to India, started up a rare sports medicine department at a private hospital, and offered to train doctors in the field to service the Games. His outreach went nowhere. Instead, at a medical conference in 2007, a top Games official took to criticizing private sector efforts.

“I offered him help in any form whatsoever. He and other senior officials got agitated as how could a 30-something year old kid comment on such important issues. He told me to sit down and email him, which I did right there. Not surprisingly, I never heard back from them,” says Chauhan.

Years later, as deadlines for the Games loomed with almost no sports medicine doctors on hand, Chauhan received numerous e-mail pleas – shown to this reporter – to come volunteer. Officials ultimately turned to government doctors to staff the venues, none of who have formal training in sports medicine, according to PSM Chandran, president of the Indian Federation of Sports Medicine.

The chief medical officer for the Games, Bharat Inder Singh, says his committee decided to focus more on getting specialists in injuries that are likely to come up in a given sport. Dr. Chandran counters that such doctors will be slower since they don’t know the patterns of injury in each sport.

Dr. Singh says he gave up a lucrative private practice for the chance to serve his nation. He acknowledges that private help was turned back because the Delhi government was “very firm” in keeping control over medical services for the Games. Delhi rejected an offer from an Indian-American medical team to work for free. “I suppose there was a lot of pride involved in it,” he says.

A clash between young and old

Chauhan’s situation reflects the clash between a younger India’s belief in meritocracy and the rigid hierarchies of the government. But even the eldest Indians say the Games are an indictment of the country’s governance.

“India is a strong country with a weak government,” says U.V. Joshi, an elderly retired civil servant from the state of Maharashtra. “The administrative system which worked nicely under the British has gone awry now. It has to be repaired if India is to progress.”

He’s old enough to remember the political leaders who won independence for India.

“They were self-effacing, self-sacrificing leaders. But immediately after that, they became hungry for self-propagation. And now, with globalization and commercialization this has gone beyond tolerable limits,” he says. “It’s a crisis of character.”

Indeed, 162 of the 543 members of Parliament have criminal records. It’s enough to make some Indians – who constantly look over at China’s ability to churn out massive public projects – to question democracy.

But for Anil Bairwal, the national coordinator for the Association for Democratic Reforms, the blame for bad politicians lies not in India’s democracy, but the total lack of democracy within its political parties.

“The [electoral] law needs to change, but the lawbreakers are the lawmakers and they don’t want to change the law,” says Mr. Bairwal.

A opportunity for reforms?

Some Indians see momentum for reform given the painful exposure of the problem.

“It makes a lot of people in the country question this soft underbelly [of corruption] and to say, ‘Hey, we are doing so well in every other sphere, why should we not fix this?’” says Harish Bijoor, a brand and business strategy consultant in Bangalore.

The long-term solution, he says, is for more captains of industry, scientists, sportsmen, and other leaders across Indian life to go into politics. At the moment, the grandchildren of those who led India’s freedom struggle dominate the political class.

Most Indians still hold out hope that the Games, which run from Sunday through Oct. 14, will come together at the last moment.

“In the end, we will make it,” says Mr. Joshi, the retired civil servant. But he also worries a bit about that: “If we succeed, we will clap our backs and we’ll neglect the corruption aspect.”

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