Commonwealth games reveal disparity

During the next two weeks, over 7,000 athletes will compete in the 19th Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India. The games have been described as an opportunity for India to change its world image, providing it a stage on which to portray itself as an advanced world power. While the revelations this week about the state of the athletes’ village will no doubt hinder this attempt, the Commonwealth Games will focus the world’s attention on India’s ability to host a world-class multisport event.

The prize that many Indians are hoping for is not a lead in the medal count but rather a further cementing of India’s position as a growing regional and world power. Technologically it boasts nuclear weaponry and a space program. Its business people are among the richest in the world. India has flexed its muscle internationally, providing, for example, aid to impoverished neighbours such as Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It is regarded as one of the world’s major economies, having been invited to join the G8+5.

Yet while the Commonwealth Games provide an opportunity for India’s middle and upper class to showcase the “new India,” India remains a country with incredible divisions, particularly between the rich and the poor. There is significant wealth in India, but it is highly concentrated. Indeed, 53 individuals (in a country of over one billion people) hold wealth equivalent to one-third of the entire country’s GDP. Furthermore, India’s position in the United Nations’ Human Development Index is actually falling, and the country is now ranked 132nd out of 179. So wealth is being produced, but many are not benefiting from it.
India’s middle class is growing but there are many who have been entirely left out of this development. For example, India can boast the world’s highest number of chronically hungry people — at over 220 million. While there are government programs to feed India’s poor, over one billion tons of grain are currently going to waste in government storehouses. Ironically, at the same time, obesity has reached epidemic proportions.

Food is but one example of the growing, and glaring, inequalities in Indian society. Delhi is a constant dichotomy of incredible wealth and dire poverty: the luxury shopping mall beside the squalid squatter’s shacks, the Mercedez-Benz idling by the hand-pulled rickshaw.

This past winter I had the opportunity to visit India, including spending some time in Delhi. The entire city was a construction zone as preparations were being made for the Commonwealth Games. Huge infrastructure projects stretched across the city. Over US$6 billion was spent to prepare for the festivities, six times the previous record.

The cost of these venues, however, was more than monetary. Revealingly, they demonstrate the fault lines along which India is divided. To put its best face forward, India has cleared many of Delhi’s slums. This both made the room necessary to build many of the venues and infrastructure necessary for the games, and ensure a world-class image for the city of Delhi. The police have forced many low-income citizens such as rickshaw drivers from work. Furthermore, community organizations in India have raised concerns ranging from the diversion of funds that were supposed to go to low-income people in Delhi towards funding the games, and the use of underpaid labour by the Games Organizing Committee.

As the Commonwealth Games kick off on Oct. 3, there will likely be numerous feats of athletic prowess and, potentially, opportunities for India to showcase a new modern image, unfortunately this image is not shared by all Indians. Many have not participated in this prosperity, and have even suffered as a result of the Games. To paraphrase an old maxim, India must remember that it is not enough to just provide circuses for a few; one must provide bread for all.

Stefan Epp is a research associate at the University of Manitoba and traveled to India in the winter of 2010.