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C'wealth Games fiasco

Flogging the dead horse of the Organising Committee (OC) of the New Delhi Commonwealth Games may give us vicarious satisfaction. But, if we view the whole fiasco from a step back, we will realise that the functioning of the OC is a microcosm of the way in which activities in the public domain are being handled in this country.

Corruption, confusion, chaos, procrastination, delay, blatant political interference, multiple points of authority and responsibility working at cross-purposes, passing the buck, cost overshoot,  abysmal quality control and every other negative characteristic one can think of has become a part and parcel of public projects in India. The CWG project is not an exception but a typical example.

We are hearing so much about its infirmities because it is currently under the intense glare of the media. The environment in the country is so ripe for things to go wrong that Murphy’s Law (‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong’)  has become a truism here.
For this state of affairs, it is natural to first blame the delinquencies in our political system that has sapped the will of the people to be efficient and honest. To a large extent, this is true. We may boast of being one of the rare, stable multi-party democracies in the Third World but the toll that competitive politics has taken on ethics is so immense that honesty has become a rarity. When politicians become fawning ‘yes-persons’ to their leaders and a political career becomes the step ladder to loot, then democracy becomes worse than dictatorship.

With their hands in the pie of every public project, directly or indirectly, our politicians leave very little leeway for any project to be properly implemented. The very first thing they do is think of ways to milk the project for their personal, political and financial benefit. If the project is headed by a politician, as is the New Delhi CWG, then the handicap against successful implementation becomes that much greater.

However, over and beyond political shenanigans, is a culture of sloth, carelessness, cheating, slipshod work, unprofessional conduct, slovenliness and tardiness that we have cultivated since Independence that leads to messes like the New Delhi CWG. This culture is rooted in the four decades of government and public sector dominance of the economy during which poor performance was not punished and excellence not rewarded.
Look around in our cities, towns and villages and you will see what I mean — public buildings that are epitomes of poor construction, roads replete with potholes, footpaths that are obstacle courses, water pipes with leaking joints, drains bottled up with solid waste, power distribution networks with unshielded connections, canals clogged with silt and shrubbery, garbage bins overflowing with rubbish, uncleared construction debris strewn all over, toilets in public places filthy as can be and the like. With such a lackadaisical attitude towards work quality, it is no wonder that roofs fall, walls collapse, levees crumble, trains derail, streets get flooded with slightest of rain, power outages common, road accidents frequent and so on.

Poor execution

Thanks to such work culture, we have come to expect the least and accept the lowest common denominator from public authorities. Instead of excellence, making do with poor execution, brushing inconvenient truths under the carpet and somehow carrying on for the time being, have become the hallmark of our public projects. Some commentators are all praise for our ‘jugaadbaji’ (making the best of bad circumstances); I consider it a disgrace that we have to resort to it.

It is this culture of accepting mediocrity that is reflected in this response by Lalit Bhanot, OC secretary general about the complaints of filth at the Games Village: “It is not such a big issue we should be ashamed of — westerners have different standards (of hygiene), we have different standards.” It is the same culture that led the chief engineer of Delhi’s PWD to remark that the footbridge collapse was ‘a minor incident’ and that prompted cabinet secretary K M Chandrasekhar to term the collapse of a portion of the false ceiling at the Games main stadium as a ‘minor incident.’ And it is this same sanguineness in the face of inadequacies that prompted OC vice-chairman Randhir Singh to assure: “We have made top-class security arrangements,” even though an Australian TV crew showed that they could walk into the stadium with a box full of detonators without being challenged.
As of now, the snafus in the CWG project are attracting newspaper headlines and carpet coverage by the TV channels. But media interest is fickle. When the Games somehow get concluded, without the presence of many star athletes and some contingents, media attention will shift to some other issue and the public will also lose interest in the whole affair. The CWG will be forgotten as a bad dream. That is what the organisers, the government officials and politicians are hoping.

That’s a pity. Because the New Delhi CWG can form an excellent case study of how not to undertake a major public project. One of the IIMs should take this up as a research study, analysing every aspect: why India bid for the Games; state of preparedness in 2003; background of key OC personnel and background of those who selected them; financing (why were no funds forthcoming till 2008?); pattern of distribution of responsibilities and authority; reasons for expansion of scope of construction; system adopted for tenders and contracts; follow-up and execution methods, etc. Such a study will yield a treasure trove of ‘Dos and Don’ts’ for big public projects at least in the future.

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