Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Countdown 2010


Delhi is undertaking a massive development scheme before it hosts the 2010 Commonwealth Games. But Al Jazeera's People & Power found that many locals are doubtful the new projects will benefit everyone.

As the dust settles on the Beijing Olympics preparations are proceeding full-steam ahead in the Indian capital Delhi for their own multi-sport bonanza – the 2010 Commonwealth games.

With 85 nations due to compete in 17 different disciplines it is the largest event of its kind ever to be held in the country and the construction in the city reflects the scale of the event.

"We're a big economic power now. I mean India is looked at, India and China are looked at from a different angle altogether," Suresh Kalmadi, the chairman of the Indian Olympic Committee, says.

"We are going up economically, and people expect that sports-wise also we must do well."

Delhi has promised it will surpass the Melbourne games of 2006 and the Delhi Development Authority is the agency that has been charged with converting the capital into a "world class city" in two years time.

"The city, because of the Games, wherever it is – whether it is Athens, China – moves 10 years ahead, and Delhi will also move ten years ahead with the Commonwealth Games," Kalmadi says.

Moving ten years ahead means 24 new flyovers are in the pipeline and ultimately about 200km of new network on the Delhi Metro.

Infrastructure fear

"We have a big Commonwealth Games Village for 8,000 athletes. A number of competition and games venues are being built almost from scratch, some are being renovated," Tejinder Khanna, the chairman of DDA, tells Al Jazeera.

"So there's almost several billion dollars of infrastructure up-gradation and new infrastructure is being added."

Critics fear this new infrastructure will damage the existing environment of Delhi and that it will be the poorest who pay the price for this development.

"Delhi has many landmarks around the city from the Qutub Minar to the Red Fort to Safdarjung's Tomb. I think everything here should be preserved. There's a lot to keep. A lot to accentuate, a lot to rehabilitate,” Michael Jansen, the CEO of US consulting company Satellier, says.

"For Delhi the question really is, how do we maintain and accentuate the historic buildings in the city and then build a modern city around or into it – which I think will be the challenge."

But some people are being pushed back to accommodate this modern city. Forty kilometres away from Delhi is the area of Bawana.

People now forced to live here had been living in a slum colony in Delhi known as Yamuna Pushta before their land was taken away by the government.

The area will now house the Commonwealth games village, a state of the art facility for athletes competing in the games.

Appalling conditions

"Almost 200,000 people were actually displaced and were pushed to the outskirts of Delhi – to Bawana – so that there could be beautification that could happen," Vimlendu Jha, an environmentalist, says.

Bawana residents say their conditions are no better than before

In Bawana, the memories of the day of demolition are still fresh in people's minds.

"It was the afternoon when the bulldozers came," 25-year-old Rafiya recalls. "When it came towards us, we stood in the middle. All around us, houses were being torn down. My family was amongst the last to leave.

"My father had spent his entire life there, and died there, so we did not want to leave that place and move anywhere else."

What also angers Bawana's new residents is that their new living conditions are as equally as appalling as before.

The government gave them land to build houses. They can stay here for only five years and none of these houses have toilets.

There are some temporary toilets but they are often unaffordable for people living on less than a dollar a day.

Khanna says there was no other option for Bawana residents as authorities do not have substantial housing to provide.

"What you've done is that you have removed a slum and created another slum at a different location. So you have displaced a problem, rather than solving a problem," Jha says.

Authorities claim they are under no legal obligation to re-house residents but critics argue they have no real choice in the matter.

"Right to resettlement doesn't exist," Harish Salve, a lawyer with the Supreme Court of India, says.

"But yes, as good government, as a welfare state which we are as far as possible, if driven by poverty people have come and settled in inhospitable surrounding you must resettle them."

'Race against time'

Meanwhile, the government is busy building the Commonwealth Games village on the bed of river Yamuna, a construction that Jha says is highly hypocritical.

"We've seen lot of illegal constructions; lot of slums have been removed, vacated from the river bed, saying that 'oh well, they pollute the river', and that any form of encroachment is bad for the river system and the eco-system of the river," he says.

"How about the Commonwealth Games? Where did the government think that it was suddenly eco-friendly to have big construction and it was eco-unfriendly when there were slums that were supposed to be there?"

The authorities however insist they have all the necessary permits to build on the riverbed and the Indian Olympic Committee says it is too late to switch the project to another site.

Some analysts say that setting up facilities for the games is proving to be a race against time for the government and in order to meet deadlines they are taking quick decisions that sometimes result in irreparable damage.

Local residents say that trees in the Siri forest have been cut down to make way for the Commonwealth stadium and have been done so from the centre, in order to disguise the cutting for as long as possible.

Delhi has developed the city's Metro system for the games [EPA]
"If 1,000 trees are cut anywhere – I mean, that we are very particular, at least 10,000 more trees must be grown elsewhere. So all those factors have been looked into," Suresh Kalmadi of the Olympic committee says.

Salve says this attitude is a case of literally not seeing the forest for the trees.

"A forest which is a few hundred years old, as this Siri Fort forest is, is an eco-system. You can plant trees - you can't plant an eco system," he says.

"It is this attitude, and its this complete lack of awareness and planning, which is at the heart of the Indian problem."

Planning problems

Lack of planning is hindering Delhi from becoming the "world class" city it aspires to be.

The Road Research Institute has been monitoring the infrastructure in Delhi and says that basic facilities like pedestrian signals and zebra crossings are sorely lacking – meaning walking on Delhi roads has never needed more maneouvring.

"Just for the sake of widening the roads we are just cutting down the size of the footpaths. And whatever footpaths are available they are not at all pedestrian friendly," Nishi Mittal from the institute says.

The games' organising authorities suggest such hindrances are merely teething problems and that a fluid transportation system will be in place by 2010.

"There's going to be a lovely transportation system coming in," Kalmadi says.

"All these stadiums are also being connected by the Metro. So, lot of things happening for the common man."

However, despite the millions of dollars already invested in the infrastructure of the Games, many believe that millions of people may not benefit from it.

"Whatever Games we're talking about, it doesn't really help the common man. It comes and goes," Vimlendu Jha says

"But in the process of coming and going, you don't lose so much. You don't put everything at stake."


(I worked on this).

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Of presidential decisions

There are a couple of things that really hurt the intelligence of the American voter, and the Republican party’s recent justification of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate is one of them.

Let’s start from the beginning. When he announced Palin as his choice for veep, she said in a minor speech something to the effect that even though Hillary Clinton is out of the race, this move (and her becoming VP) could show women that the glass ceiling can still be broken. Fabulous. But for me, the entire point of Hillary Clinton was that she was someone who made it on her own. (You might say being married to Bill helped her, but I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that she would have kicked ass even if he hadn’t been a politician). So picking a random woman to be his running mate, the only qualification needed that she be female, makes McCain seem like a total idiot in my opinion. Harks back to debates in India about making Pratibha Patil president of the country simply because she was female. (And from what I understand this president has made no impact on the country, except for occasional reports about crass behavior from her family in the press.)

But back to Sarah Palin, who I’m sure must be a nice lady. But McCain met her in February for the first time. So let me try and wrap my head around this – he has decided to make this woman, who he barely even knows, his VP. And so, if he were to die in office (I know, terrible to talk about it, but the man is old, so you need to think of Plan B), then Sarah Palin, someone who admittedly has not given Iraq much thought, will be leader of the free world -- and in charge of foreign policy?

And then of course is the small gloating from the GOP about Palin’s 17 year old daughter being pregnant, which they think will make voters think she is just-like-them and can relate to them. You know the last time we heard such an argument? When they were selling George W. Bush to the Americans!

In presidential candidates, you don’t need people who are like the rest of us. You need people who have higher standards, who have excelled in life.

I think it was Bill Clinton’s speech at the Denver DNC when he said that in his first presidential decision (of choosing a VP), Obama has “knocked it out of the park”. I like Joe Biden. So what about McCain’s first presidential decision? I read somewhere he picked a Palin rather than one of the usual suspects because he still wanted to appear to be a maverick, and that he still had it in him to keep people guessing. Pick your battles, I say. And in picking a running mate, pick someone you admire and respect, not some person you barely even know, but think might fit into some narrative the media will love.

Very disappointing John McCain. Not that you had my vote (if I could) but you are losing the respect too.