NEW DELHI, September 23 – They were meant to showcase the emergence of a country with superpower ambitions. Instead the Delhi Commonwealth Games have shone an unflattering light on old-fashioned ills that still blight India.With 10 days to go, the accumulation of countless missed deadlines, political drift and shambolic organisation has led to a crisis, with serious questions being raised about whether the October 3-14 showpiece can go ahead.
Inevitably, in a century many think will be defined by the growth of Asia’s biggest countries India and China, the disastrous run-up to the Delhi games is being compared to the slick organisation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The parallel might seem unfair — China’s economy is three times the size of its rival’s and the Beijing regime has none of India’s democratic constraints — but it is a comparison that Indian organisers have actively encouraged.
"It is going to be the best infrastructure in the world. It is going to have the best games; better than the Beijing Olympics," the under-fire Indian chief organiser Suresh Kalmadi boasted at the end of last month.
He and other organisers have continued to insist the games — five times over budget at three billion US dollars — will be the best ever Commonwealth event, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
This week, a bridge collapsed at the main stadium; the athletes’ village was described as "uninhabitable", "filthy" and unfinished; and several crowd-pulling star athletes pulled out.
"I have never seen a country where they talk against their own like this," Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit complained on Wednesday as she spoke to the hostile local media.
"These are our games. We should put our best foot forward."
The image that the nation was hoping to project was its new, dynamic one, the "shining" India of political sloganeering — one of nine percent economic growth, high-tech software companies and new diplomatic clout abroad.
Instead, the old image of a stifling and inefficient bureaucracy, poor infrastructure, corruption and squalor has been broadcast around the world.
The blame for the mess, says Bimal Jalan, a former governor of the Indian central bank and parliamentarian, lies firmly with the country’s unreformed public administration that has not modernised like the corporate sector.
"We should have created one body that could take all the decisions for the games," he told AFP. "This always creates problems in India. There’s nothing that can be done without nine ministries involved."
An unresponsive bureaucracy, unaccountable ministers and corruption are all blamed for India’s failure over decades to provide infrastructure and public services for its fast-growing billion-plus population.
Even today in the middle-class suburbs of New Delhi, Mumbai or IT hub Bangalore, water, refuse collection, electricity and public medical facilities remain in short supply. Up to 400 million lack any access to electricity.
"What this shows about modern India is that there is really a new type of India in the private sector and then there’s the government of India," Kamil Zaheer, an Indian manager at a US multinational, told AFP.
"The government, despite its pretensions about being a superpower, is stuck in a morass of corruption with no accountability," he said.
Jalan points to private-sector success in building infrastructure such as the world’s biggest oil refinery complex in western Gujarat state operated by Reliance, or the newly opened international airport in New Delhi.
"It’s not India’s inability to build infrastructure. It’s the Indian government’s inability," he said.
For the time being, organisers and political leaders appear out of touch with the depths of anger and shame felt by many.
A quick survey of views on Delhi’s streets suggested the event is increasingly seen as an extravagant waste of public money that has embarrassed the country.
"There should be a Commonwealth jail. All the guys working from top to bottom, including various government agencies, should be paraded naked and all their assets should be frozen," suggested 28-year-old Divya Gupta.
Only one in 10 people selected at random on one of central Delhi’s main commercial roads had anything positive to say.
"The Commonwealth Games is an example of how poorly we in India handle planning and execution," said Shivraj Parshad, a 36-year-old media professional.
"What is shocking is that while the games were tagged as a big international showcase, we have spent the last two years fighting and screwing it all up."