A VILLAGE BUILT ON FALLACIES

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As the Prime Minister inspected Commonwealth Games sites on Sunday and Sheila Dixit extended the deadline for the venues yet another time, the last-gasp dash to the finish line has overtaken the deeper questions at the heart of these Games. There are structural reasons for the quagmire Delhi finds itself in. The story of the Games Village characterises all that went wrong in our priorities and deserves a close look.

In 2003, Delhi was in serious danger of losing its Games bid to the Canadian city of Hamilton. Hamilton had put its local McMaster University at the centre of its Games concept.

It proposed to build a Games Village and three new sporting venues on the 300-acre campus of McMaster University and the idea was to create a permanent legacy of world-class sporting infrastructure for its students in this small city of 500,000.

In contrast, Delhi’s original bid proposed to build a Games Village and to sell it as real estate after the Games as luxury apartments. Compared to Hamilton’s focus on its university, Delhi seemed on shaky ground. Even more seriously, India’s sporting czars said that they would finance almost forty per cent of the then estimated cost of the Games from the sale of these flats. This looked decidedly risky.

The flats could only be sold after the Games. If they were also supposed to pay for the Games, how would the Games be held in the first place? And what if the flats failed to yield the expected revenues? The Commonwealth Games Federation’s (CGF) technical experts rightly saw this as a major financial risk.

Delhi needed to win the bid so when the CGF’s experts raised these questions, Delhi’s organisers agreed to a major change. The plan to sell the flats to finance part of the Games was subsequently amended to ensure that the budget would not be reliant on the sale of the accommodation.

By October 2003, Delhi submitted a revised budget wherein the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) took over the risk and responsibility of the Village and the CGF Evaluation Commission reported that the “sale of residential apartments is not [any more] a risk to the Games budget”. Basically, government agencies agreed to pay for the money that the flats’ sale would have provided.

One of the most disturbing but little-known stories of these Games is that at the same time, Delhi’s organisers also promised that its Games Village would be turned into hostel accommodation for Delhi University after the Games. CGF documents are unambiguous that leading up to the crucial vote of Commonwealth countries in November 2003, when Delhi finally won the Games, it gave an undertaking that “post-Games the Village will provide hostel facility for the Delhi University”. This was done, it seems, to make Delhi look as committed to education legacies as Hamilton looked with McMasterUniversity.

India’s sports managers championed this idea and the notion of the Village as a university hostel was prominently displayed in Delhi’s revised bid documents. As the CGF noted, “The Games Village will provide an excellent hostel facility for the Delhi University and will remain available for residential use during hosting of future international events.”

This plan was published in cold print but once Delhi won the Games, that was the last that anyone heard of it. Delhi’s Games masters had always intended on selling the real estate and the much needed DU hostel plan was given a quiet burial. Few knew of the commitment to Delhi University and there was virtually no public protest when it was cancelled. Instead of creating a student hostel for the overcrowded University, the organisers now focussed again on getting in a private builder to create ridiculously high-priced apartments that would be sold to well-off Indians after the Games.

Marketing posters for the Village apartments in the past years have since proclaimed the Village as “the finest address in Delhi”, one of the “finest concepts in luxury living” and one that will “set new standard in fine living”.

It is pertinent to ask what would have benefitted the city more: a student hostel or yet another gated enclave for the rich? The answer is obvious, even if we keep aside the question of DDA’s subsequent Rs 766 crore bailout for the Village’s private builder – when it ran into financial trouble – and the fierce environmental debate about the site’s location. The U-turn on the student hostel is at the heart of a central question on whether the Games are intended to benefit the city as a whole or a tiny, elite minority.

(Mehta’s book ‘Sellotape Legacy: Delhi and the Commonwealth Games’, with Boria Majumdar, has just been published.)