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Neither Booming nor Backward

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India’s preparations for the Commonwealth Games have become an international embarrassment. Earlier this month the Central Vigilance Commission examined several construction projects relating to the games and found them wanting, a judgment confirmed by the recent collapse of a bridge that injured 27 people. It even looked for a while as if the games could be cancelled.

There are also many stories of corruption. The National Campaign on Dalit (ex-untouchable) Human Rights alleges that $150 million was siphoned away from schemes for assisting low castes in Delhi to be spent on the games. According to the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, construction workers have not been provided with safety equipment and are being paid less than the minimum wage. Some reports say that as many as 49 people have died building stadiums and facilities for the games.

Meanwhile, the city authorities have forcibly evicted large numbers of India’s poor from the area around the games site and created ‘Zero Tolerance Zones’ where beggars and other marginalised people have been harassed and intimidated. The commitment of the Indian government to remove poverty (‘garibi hatao’) appears to have been replaced by a new desire to remove the poor (‘garib hatao’).

There are however two possible glimmers of hope. First, the public outcry in India about the mismanagement of the games is a positive sign. The Congress-led government passed a Right to Information Act five years ago. This allows members of the public to ask for information about any aspect of the state’s operations, and the PUDR and the NCDHR used it to uncover the corruption surrounding the games. Some commentators have contrasted the chaos in India with China’s efficient organisation of the Olympics. But the widespread exposure of corruption in India may be read as a sign of the health of its democracy, and the greater possibility of public dissent than in its authoritarian neighbour.

The global publicity generated by the current furore is no bad thing either. The Commonwealth Games have exposed the enduring gap between India’s elite and the poor – even the Daily Telegraph has begun to write about child labour in India. Popular representations of India as ‘booming’, like the older invidious depictions of it as ‘backward’, cloud Western ideas about the country. By shining an international searchlight on exploitation and corruption, the Commonwealth Games have at least helped to expose the persistence of social inequalities in India and the simultaneously empowering and punitive role played by the state in poor people’s lives.

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