How India Botched the Commonwealth Games

India is unprepared for the international contest. Graham Crouch / Getty Images

It was meant to showcase India’s emergence as an economic powerhouse and its arrival on the global stage. But the quadrennial Commonwealth Games, scheduled to start on Oct. 3 in New Delhi, is turning out to be a major national embarrassment as incomplete stadiums, huge cost overruns, and charges of corruption and mismanagement sap many Indians’ confidence in their leadership. This is the Bizarro World Cup.

Although New Delhi was awarded the prestigious Games—in which 71 teams from 54 Anglophone nations (from Scotland to Canada and Australia to the Isle of Man) compete in Olympic-style sports like sprinting and swimming—as far back as in 2003, actual work on remodeling or creating some 17 venues for the sporting events started barely two years ago. Instead of a single ministry designated to handle the preparations, as many as 21 government departments got involved—and in the absence of a unified central command, many of them often worked at cross purposes. If one agency paved a street, another came and dug it up. For instance, several stretches on the Lodhi Road and Aurobindo Marg, two big arteries near the main Games stadium, were repeatedly dug up and filled in by different local authorities widening the road or laying sewer lines or tiling the sidewalks.

Litigation over land acquisition and slow environmental-impact studies delayed things even further. The escalating cost of more than $5 billion—nearly 10 times the 2003 budget estimates—has failed to give Delhi a refurbished look, as it appears more like a giant construction site with piles of debris,  leaking roofs, dug-up sidewalks, and pools of stagnant water dotting the areas around the venues. And an outbreak of dangerous dengue fever across the capital (nearly 1,400 people have been afflicted, with three deaths) has sowed panic among the citizens and competitors alike. (Twenty nations wrote to the organizing committee asking what steps had been taken to check the outbreak; four nations have issued travel advisories. What’s more, unusually heavy monsoons this year left large pools and puddles of water in which the dengue mosquito breeds.)

The British queen, who has traditionally attended some part of the Games for more than four decades, is going to skip the event and instead sending her son, Prince Charles. Some notable athletes like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and British cyclist Chris Hoy are also bypassing the event, citing commitments elsewhere.

As if that weren’t enough, India’s Central Vigilance Commission, a government watchdog set up to guard against official malpractice, has found that funds have been siphoned off from as many as 16 Games-related construction projects, and items from trash cans to treadmills have been acquired at hugely inflated prices. (Trash cans cost $2.50 in the market but 3,771 were bought at nearly 20 times that price; as many as 56 Multi-Gyms, which retail for $1,400 were bought for $7,500 each.) Relatives and friends of influential Games officials managed to bag contracts even as Indian newspapers exposed e-mails forged to justify the inflated costs, arbitrary decision making, and waning interest in the Games among participating countries. (Some anxious relatives of athletes from those nations have canceled their trips to the Games.) In some of the 54 participating nations, the Games have sold no tickets at all, and more than half the tickets for the opening ceremony in less than four weeks remain unsold.

A poll of Delhi residents by The Times of India found that nearly half of those surveyed feel that India’s image has already been damaged, and nearly two thirds felt that the project has been marred by wasteful spending. Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former sports minister who became an M.P. for the Congress party, said he hoped the Commonwealth Games would fail, just to deter India from hosting large sports events in the future. “The money being spent on the Games could have been utilized for developing infrastructure in rural areas and for training sports persons in various disciplines to make India a strong sporting nation,” said Aiyar at a press conference. Echoing the sentiments, India’s star soccer player Baichung Bhutia said, “We should not have bid for the Games.”

Such gloomy reactions eventually prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month to summon those in charge of the Games. At least four senior officials were sacked on corruption charges, and others were put on notice. Singh made Suresh Kalmadi, chief of the organizing committee, accountable to a group of government ministers; both he and ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi promised to punish the corrupt once the Games were over, but nobody has yet been indicted. Last week Singh himself visited the main venue for the opening and closing ceremonies and urged officials to hurry up.

But all that has failed to inspire confidence among many Indians. In fact, rival Bharatiya Janata Party leaders are already mocking Singh for his failure to galvanize the nation. “Even if the prime minister starts wiping the floor, the venues won’t be ready,” said BJP leader Narendra Modi. Many Indians are angry with the inefficient and callous leadership that fails to live up to India’s rising stature. Forget glory: their only prayer now is how to avoid total shame.