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The Commonwealth Games and the Indian reality

By David Robinson - posted Friday, 1 October 2010


International sport is often said to be about far more than the competition, promoting intercultural understanding, friendship and respect. In the case of the unfolding Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, disorganisation and athlete’s living conditions have put a strain on the latter two values, but hopefully this occasion will at least stimulate greater understanding in the minds of the worldwide audience.

A number of stand-out quotations running through the Australian media point to the heart of the issues in New Delhi. The head of the English Commonwealth Games team, Craig Hunter, described the conditions of the athlete’s village as “uninhabitable”. “It's just not satisfactory ... the toilets … are clearly a mess … The air conditioning isn't working, there's flooding, doors have been hung in an incorrect manner … The hot and cold water feeds are reversed.”

Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive Mike Hooper concurs that the Games Village is, “filthy and certainly uninhabitable”.

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In contrast, the leading Indian sports official Lalit Bhanot has pleaded to Indian reporters, “Please try to understand, according to me and you the room is clean, fine. They want a certain standard of hygiene.”

And here we have the nub of the matter: the conditions that are found “uninhabitable” by visiting Westerners are of a level that the middle classes of Indian society experience in their every-day lives as the norm, and poor Indians can only imagine as an unattainable luxury. Toilets? Hot and cold running water? Air conditioning! Let these Western representatives step onto the street on any Indian town or village and explain their woes to the passers-by.

India has a rose-tinted place in the imaginations of many Westerners, its people romanticised and orientalised, its landscape and history embedded within a British Raj narrative. Meanwhile, India is rightfully viewed internationally as an ascending political and economic force. India has experienced amazing economic expansion, with its average GDP growth rate hovering at around 7 per cent a year. It is also envisaged that in the next two decades India’s population will surpass China’s, and that its rapidly expanding middle class may come to out-populate Europe. India has also been reaching out overseas, seeking oil and gas from the major Gulf countries and Central Asian states, and increasing their investments throughout Africa. So India’s rising global economic importance is no fallacy.

Meanwhile, the United States has courted burgeoning India as an economic and military ally. The US has supported the Indian nuclear energy program to help power the growing Indian economy, with the unspoken secondary motive of aiding India’s nuclear weapons capacity. India has embraced these growing military responsibilities by spending tens of billions of dollars on creating what is commonly regarded as the world’s fourth most powerful military. Increasingly this force will include long-range aircraft, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines intended to exert India’s power throughout the Indian Ocean region, and medium and long-range ballistic missiles with a global reach. The world is aware that India is becoming a “Great Power”.

But despite its meteoric economic development, India contains both the best of the First World and the worst of the Third World within its borders, and faces unprecedented human security challenges. India now has 410 million people living below the UN poverty line - 37.2 per cent of its population and actually 100 million more people than in 2004 - and millions of India’s rural poor are faced with food price inflation of up to 17 per cent. Nearly half of South Asia’s children suffer malnourishment, and women remain vastly over-represented among the ranks of the poor.

Sixty per cent of Indian labour is still agricultural, and the integration of hundreds of millions of peasants into a modern economy will be an extremely painful process. While Indian infrastructure such as roads, civil aviation, ports, and telecommunications have experienced noticeable improvements in recent years, electricity, railways, and irrigation all still need significant investment; and India continues to lag in social infrastructure, such as education and healthcare. Meanwhile, these social inequalities have fuelled the widespread “Naxalite” Maoist insurgency affecting vast areas throughout eastern and central India, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh identified as the “greatest internal security threat” facing the nation.

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In response to this the international community consistently fails to live up to the goals for development aid which they have promised, perpetuating a situation in which millions of people in India and around the world die every year from poverty-related starvation and disease, and those who subsist live qualities of life far-below their physical and mental potentials. Overseas aid certainly did not rate a mention in our own recent elections, and seemingly the only concerns Australians now have about overseas development and conflict regard how many refugees Australia will be forced to incarcerate as a result.

This is the real context of “Commonwealth Crisis” in Delhi. Within the narrow confines of the debate about whether facilities are acceptable, it is the Indian organisers who are the villains. But take a few steps back and examine Indian society, its place in the world, and the expectations that Westerners have come to regard as normal, and surely those decrying their accommodation must feel shame at the lifestyles that we have come to live, while many around the world scrape out a meagre existence.

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About the Author

Dr David Robinson is a Lecturer of History at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He completed his doctorate in African History in 2006, and now teaches courses on Global History, Human Rights and Genocide. His research focus is post-colonial Africa and Cold War conflict.

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