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The CWG and Indian Standards
The run-up to CWG is just one instance of the slothful functioning of the Indian Government. Unless the society’s stackholders punish those who misuse power, such vices will continue.
Scarcely had one written a diatribe against the inherent self-sabotage of ‘By Indian Standards’ as an operating principle, than the Commonwealth Games provided what is destined to be the exemplar of the phenomenon. Responding to criticism by foreign Games organizations that the rooms and toilets in the athletes village were unacceptable, “the flats are uninhabitable, dirty and filthy, the toilets are unclean” a member of the organizing committee, one Sri Lalit Bhanot achieved an unfortunate immortality by blurting out that they were actually fine, it was just that “Their (western) standard of hygiene and cleanliness could be different from ours so there is nothing to be ashamed about it.”
Filthy bathrooms, gutka-stained basins, exposed electricity cables, bed-sheets with animal paw-prints, flooding of the venues, plumbing that doesn’t work, and varying levels of wiring, furnishings, Internet access and cell phone coverage - that was the reality of the Games village up to the start of the games. But there is nothing to be ashamed of. Facilities are supposed to exist; that is their purpose. That they should also work and be clean in the bargain seems to be an optional extra. Mr. Bhanot seemed to realize that he had blundered and tried to cover it up by blabbering about “your standard and my standard and yet another third person’s standards’ but the damage was irreversible. He had articulated what had always been felt but never publicly stated – out of politeness perhaps, or more likely because of the Indian propensity to take offense at criticism from ‘outside’. India has a different standard of cleanliness, service and hygiene from the rest of the world and it is not a problem for Indians.
Things have come to this pass because nobody seriously challenges the most crippling of operating paradigms, that of Indian Exceptionalism. India is not to be held to any sort of international standard, any sort of expectation of quality, because the problems of this country and people are as unique as its culture and therefore the norms that humanity aspire to live by do not apply here. This has been a standard excuse for social failure ever since independence. It is over sixty years now, we are senior citizens, and youthful ineptitude seems to have become senile decrepitude. I venture a prediction here. On the basis of the rule of thumb that the establishment protects its own first, Bhanot will receive a government reward or title and that quite soon. For these games were regarded by the governing classes, not as an opportunity to create world class sporting infrastructure, but to indulge in their core competencies of cronyism, nepotism and corruption.
There are between 21 to 28 government and quasi government agencies overseeing the entire process. Nobody is sure of the exact number, just as nobody is sure who is in charge, and who is terminally responsible. This fact was lamented by Sandeep Dikshit, Member of Parliament, and son of the Delhi Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit. When such an establishment player confesses bewilderment we understand the scale of cluelessness with which this was organized. Thirty-eight members of the organizing committee had relatives working on the Games in some position or another, with one having four nephews at the feeding trough. “This is just a coincidence,” says a government spokesman and the answer was perfectly acceptable, for there is hardly a listener who would not have done the same if he was in the position of the fortunate uncle. Sheila Dikshit, held to be one of the better Chief Ministers, got so exasperated with the constant media needling that she took refuge in a lamentable last resort and invoked patriotic pride in what had been done well. It was a demoralizing spectacle to say the least, much worse than collapsing roofs in stadiums and footbridges that came falling down.
It is difficult to feel pride when the numbers keep reaching absurd levels. Eighty dollars for a toilet roll, 61 dollars for a soap dispenser, 125 dollars for a first aid kit, treadmills leased at ten times the price it would have cost to purchase them outright and the bicycling contingent being told to sign bonds that they will be financially responsible if they damage the hi-tech cycles purchased for them. This is not how a functional society behaves but it is how a hugely efficient corruption and kickback operation functions. The urban middle class outrage over this CWG mess falls neatly between naiveté and hypocrisy. For the CWG was supposed to be a brand ambassador for the sort of India they wish to belong to and hope the world will agree – an India of gleaming efficiency, of rising personal wealth, of competence and intellectual excellence, and aspirations to be a global power. The CWG was, alas, in the hands of the Old Establishment, and for them to be slothful, chaotic, incompetent and trustful in the power of jugaad to bail out things at the last moment are second nature. For excellence is not a virtue for the Old Establishment. Nor is efficiency, international standards, public service or other laughable concepts. What matters, the only thing that matters, is an opportunity to grow rich and the CWG was the mother lode. Between the dreamers of urban India and the Old Establishment there is a ludicrous chasm.
Urban India is the only section of the country with a stake in this sort of debate; the other three –fourths who are poor are too busy surviving to care. Whether a nation with such desperate poverty should waste what now seems to be close to $8 billion on such events is another question. Urban India feels helpless before the entrenched power structure of the Old Establishment and they are usually right. Become too much of a nuisance and you suddenly get visits from the Income Tax, the members of which go through your house practicing Bhanot standards with your personal property. There are a million ways to demean and harass a ‘trouble maker’. But even when they do have an opportunity to teach a lesson they do not take it. When Pakistani terrorists shot up Mumbai there was a spontaneous outburst of anger from the public, but as soon as it got diverted into the supreme fatuity of the candle light vigil it was clear that nothing would change. Extravagant promises were made of better equipment for the police, chief of which had been higher quality bullet proof vests. The ‘angry public’ re-elected the same party which had presided over the Mumbai fiasco; the police are still waiting for their vests and ‘sophisticated equipment.’ The anger seems to have evaporated.
Unless the Old Establishment is given concrete evidence that there will be severe consequences for failure, nothing much will be done. This is exactly why the CWG got to the point it did. There are no consequences for failure, for ineptitude, for shocking callousness and brazen looting of the till. The Old Establishment has no reason to change the way it does things. In fact there are many reasons to continue as usual, most of them personally rewarding. Unless the stakeholders in society punish in some way those who misuse their positions and do so consistently, these things will continue to happen. Lamenting them may relieve feelings but change will remain elusive.
Rajeshwar Upadhyaya is Director, Par Excellence. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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