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India’s games shame should be a wake-up call

India’s shame is nearly complete.

You will not have failed to notice the utter mess the country has made of the preparing for the ongoing Commonwealth Games. “Shining India” was meant to showcase its newly acquired global prowess by holding an event to make the world sit up and take notice. Well, the world did sit up – but only to shake its head and say: “Same old India.”

The planning for this event has been a complete fiasco, and many Indians have hung their heads in shame at the pictures that have flashed across the world’s TV screens in recent weeks. Incomplete facilities, unhygienic conditions, collapsing bridges and ceilings, floods in the venue city, Delhi, outbreaks of dengue fever…everything that could go wrong, did.

Indeed India only averted a worst-case scenario – a mass pullout by key countries – by a hair’s breadth. The usual last-minute “let’s throw armies of labourers at the problem” tactic was used, allowing India to rescue the situation enough to allow most countries and athletes to confirm their participation. But that does not excuse the situation in the slightest.

The most annoying part was watching India’s bigwigs in action. Ministers, mayors and chairmen all seemed to be in race to see who can make the most inane utterance. Notwithstanding the fact that they had a full seven years to plan and deliver this event, these panjandrums blamed very damn thing other than themselves: the rain; the media; western finickiness; colonial mentalities; mosquitoes; bad luck…nothing was spared. And they tried to dismiss all complaints as trivial – even the collapse of a footbridge that injured 26, five critically.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to create crisis committees and intervene personally to ward off looming global humiliation. Too little too late, sir: the damage is done. There are persistent allegations of corruption in procurement and contracting, inflated invoices, shoddy materials, and rampant appointment of friends and relatives in various positions to do with the games. You should have fixed this months and years ago.

Dedicated India-watchers have a right to be perplexed. This is the country, after all, that is clocking up 8 or 9 per cent GDP growth every year and creating one of the world’s largest reservoirs of graduate talent. In the same country, IT giant Infosys has built one of the world’s most impressive corporate academies, a $120-million complex that puts Commonwealth Games venues to shame. It houses 14,000 recruits and contains two heliports, a professional-quality cricket stadium and a multiplex theatre complex…

So what is going on here? The reality is that there are two Indias: one in which corporate titans are confidently straddling the world’s business stage; and another ruled by entrenched, old-world bureaucrats who can’t plan to save their lives (or their country’s dignity), who shout out their incompetence belligerently, and who are never shown the door.

So what should we in Kenya make of this paradox, as we stare across the ocean that divides us? Just this: you can’t change a country simply by giving it an economic engine and hoping it will fly. You can’t create two-countries-in-one at different stages of development, because one will soon strangle the other. You can’t treat the poor as an inconvenience to your cherished middle class. You can’t host world-class events when you cannot feed, clothe or treat the bulk of your population properly.

Nothing can negate India’s amazing economic achievements over the past two decades. Yet anger about India’s games shame is palpable in its corporate class, intelligentsia and media. This is a great wake-up call for India to do something of sustained meaning: retrain its policy lenses onto uplift for the great mass of its people. Sacking all those buffoons implicated in the games disaster would be an excellent start.

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