Who’s Game was it anyway?

Written by  //  October 21, 2010  //  National Politics  //  2 Comments

A guest post by Sahana Ghosh

No sooner than the spotlight fades on the closing ceremony, will the curtain go down on the saga that the Commonwealth Games has been. Heroic athletes have taken off having conquered the Delhi-belly, the Commission set up to investigate charges of corruption is slipping into oblivion, Delhizens will nurse their favourite story of CWG inconvenience for generations to come, and Indian national pride will contentedly belch, trying to digest its inflated ego. The scores of migrant workers (Indian and Bangladeshi) who either fled the city before the Games for fear of being rounded up, or were evicted by the police for the lack of documents will, undoubtedly, start crawling back into their precarious existences along the edges of high-rises and residential neighbourhoods. Delhi, nodded in as the newest global city by the international community through the strange initiation rite that the Games appear to have been, will continue afresh, as before.

It is hard to make any remark about the Games that has not been said before in the gamut of commentary that it has evoked in the past few months, and more intermittently over the past few years. I choose to reflect on the question of national pride and entitlement that, for me, this Games has manifested so disturbingly. How large-scale sporting events become the marker of national achievement and pride – and whether the price paid for them can be justified – is a question that though endemic to this Indian case is much larger in scope and I will set it aside here.

For hundreds of underpaid and overworked Indian sportspersons, this event must have been the culmination of years of relentless effort and expectations for future careers. Hosting such an event may arguably contribute to a nation’s sporting culture, although I suspect a more holistic upheaval of the systems in which we regard and play a multitude of sports would be necessary for any substantial and lasting change. Predictably the ‘common man’ is resurrected as the purported beneficiary of the Games. No matter that common men and women have been evicted from their already precarious lives in shanties, common men, women and children labouring at various games constructions sites have not been looked after or paid their dues, and the common folk of Delhi have been left fuming over endless disruptions in everyday life as the city spluttered under the weight of the Games. The Geneva Centre for Forced Evictions and Housing Rights believe sports to be the one of the biggest displacers of humanity, second to war and conflict. Recently a study by the Housing and Land Rights Network in India, focussing on forced evictions, has found that at least 2, 50,000 people in the city were made homeless as a direct result of the Games since 2004. However we may want to balance our gains and losses as a nation, how can this possibly amount to a matter of pride?

Some comparisons with the Beijing Olympics are inevitable. In 2008 critical international media claimed that the most expensive chapter in Olympic history could have been staged only in such an undemocratic country where the state could move people and resources at will and afford such seemingly unjustifiable expenditures. China’s human rights record did not go unremarked and calls for boycott were made on the grounds of the human rights abuses (forced internal migrations, exploitative labour conditions, censorship of press etc.) that preparations for and conduct of the event entailed. Playing its part, Indian media and public opinion too had reared its democratic head to report and reiterate such objections. However with the CWG, there were hardly any disapproving sounds from the international media for blatant rights abuses. The common line taken was criticism of poor governance of the project and reiteration of Indian corruption, which in turn sent mainstream Indian media into a tizzy of shame, wanting not to be judged for the corruption of some power-hungry individuals but for its tradition of hospitality that it would dress the windows with.

From the coverage of the Games-related problems within India one can gauge an acute sense of who’s considered entitled to the city and its facilities, and consequently whose cause was championed for sympathy. Why is it that the plight of those who built the Games, living in appalling conditions, working with scanty safety measures, often earning less than the daily minimum wage, went largely unreported? Exceptions were instances like the death of a migrant worker which incited his co-workers into violent protest, and the sustained critique of the Games by alternative fora like Kafila. There were reports of angry Delhizens inconvenienced and harassed in changing ways and locked out of public spaces for months on end. Yet, no laments for the loss of face were heard until it was revealed that the ‘village’ being built was not of the class that could be lived in by those gracing the event and deeming Delhi to be a global city. As international media drummed up the pitch about the corruption and poor infrastructure in the developing state, local media turned hysterical, mourning the shame that came from not having better organised the spending of the mammoth budget of $6.8 (depending on who calculates). Recently, NYU building a campus in Saudi Arabia took cognizance of the country’s notorious labour regime for migrant workers and declared that it would directly oversee the regulation and protection of all workers. This clearly demonstrates that international stakeholders can take an ethical position and make a positive difference. Could the international community involved not have taken a more proactive interest when the objectionable conditions under which preparations were undertaken had been apparent for several years?

In this fickle game between shame, pride and apathy, I see yet another manifestation of the widening gulf between the urban and the rural worlds. Migrant labourers from rural parts automatically become urban poor; in neither capacity – as rural workers or as urban poor – do they elicit the sympathetic attention of the state, national media or their urban compatriots. Their role in constructing the urbanising landscape of modern India is as easily accepted as their absence in that vision. According to the estimates of the ballooning budget, the amount spent in the end was almost triple the Melbourne Games in 2006 and is more than the budget for this government’s landmark MGNREGS. What may this suggest about the priorities of the state? To do justice to its position in an international community, India has to do much more than demonstrate that it can afford expensive events. Least of all it must include its own citizens, rural and urban, in its vision of being a global player. The smog of the Delhi winter will soon be setting in; when we see homeless people huddling around inadequate fires we may want to remember the latest addition to the reasons why they are there.

About the Author

Arghya is currently doing the doctorate in law at the University of Oxford. Dithering between academia and litigation for a future career but sanguine in Oxford with his current researcher status.

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2 Comments on "Who’s Game was it anyway?"

  1. Arghya October 22, 2010 at 1:37 pm ·

    Hi Sahana,

    Lovely piece and wonderfully insightful. I had a question- do you think that the media’s non coverage of the ‘common man’ and issues relating to working conditions and rehabilitation is because of its nationalistic nature or more so for its middle class values and markets which privileges national pride over rural migrant labourers?
    I think, the media, though screechy and sensational at times, has played a largely salutary role in highlighting the deficiencies throughout. The fact that it chose to highlight some more than others may not be its failing or a product of its nationalism as much as it is a failing of middle class India itself and what it judges as its priorities today. Which is I think a larger question that will confront us time and again in the years to come. I’m not a great fan of the Indian mainstream media, but I think the CWG is one occasion when we should blame ourselves much more.

  2. Pedant October 30, 2010 at 1:49 am ·

    Whose.

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