Bridge collapse adds to Commonwealth Games woes

10:51AM Tue 21 Sep, 2010

NEW DELHI - A footbridge being built for the Commonwealth Games in India collapsed on Tuesday, injuring 23 people and highlighting the raft of problems that have so far blighted the event, meant to showcase the emerging global power.

Preparations for next month's Commonwealth Games, intended to be the coming out party for India the Olympics were for China, are down to the wire and the event risks descending into farce.

The shooting of two foreign visitors by suspected militants in Delhi on Sunday has combined with a dengue fever epidemic, heavy monsoon rains, delayed construction, graft scandals and traffic chaos to give the Games that sinking feeling.

Police said the collapsed bridge was just outside the main stadium, putting India's sometimes lax construction standards again in the spotlight.

Commonwealth Games Federation president Michael Fennell said on Tuesday the two-week event, starting Oct. 3, was seriously compromised by conditions at the Games village that have 'shocked the majority.'

But officials remained upbeat about the event.

'I am not worried at all. I am as confident and as cool as ever about our organizing of the Commonwealth Games in a very successful, comfortable way. These are all minor hiccups,' Urban Development Minister S. Jaipal Reddy told reporters.

Dismal preparations have, for many, underscored the out-of-touch, slow-paced leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress government, raising questions how a graft-ridden, inefficient state can hope to compete with China.

The government's pro-poor voter image may suffer from tales of billions of wasted dollars. A perception of India's entrepreneurial prowess threatening Western jobs may slip if roofs leak and journalists wonder where the Wi-Fi is.

'Fingers crossed, India may pull off a miracle,' said Boria Majumdar, a sports historian who has written the book 'Sellotape Legacy: Delhi and the Commonwealth Games'.

'But it will have to be a miracle. No doubt about that'.

The Games village and security - construction delays mean venues have been locked down by police only two weeks before the Games - are the two major weakness of the Games, Majumdar said.

Some four or five accommodation towers at the Games village are still unfinished, lacking facilities such as wireless Internet, fitted toilets and plumbing. Rubble, unused masonry and discarded bricks litter the unfinished gardens.

On a recent visit to the village, the lack of preparation was stark. A Reuters reporter witnessed dirty apartments with empty boxes strewn about, as labourers worked on paths and pavements.

A crude cement slope appeared to be an unplanned fix for disabled athletes requiring access to one apartment block.

The athletes' training centre was still to be fitted out. The water in the training and recreational swimming pools was dirty, with insect larvae breeding on the surface.

'There have had some delegations staying there and they have been reporting constantly about the filth in the village,' Fennell told CNN-IBN TV.

Organisers say there is no question the Games will be put off, but the nightmare is that one delegation exits and that leads to an avalanche. And the problems are not receding.

Of the nearly 100,000 accreditations for officials and media, only around a quarter have been issued.

With the $6 billion Games way behind schedule, there have been worries stagnant puddles in construction sites have proved breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Hundreds of Delhi residents are hospitalised in one of the worst dengue epidemics in years.

With costs running 17 times more than original estimates, the government's anti-corruption watchdog identified 16 projects with suspect financing.

The insistence to hold the Games in October has led to some athletes pulling out due to conflicts with Olympic qualifiers. October also means the opening ceremony may be ruined by rains.

Triple Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt of Jamaica is the most high profile of a bunch of top athletes who have decided to skip the event.

But many venues, including the main Jawaharlal Nehru stadium have been praised as world class. The hope for organisers is that TV coverage of the Games will focus on events, not arrangements.

Other events like the 2004 Athens Olympics were dogged by problems but turned out fine. Beijing was hit by worries over the torch relay and Tibet protests but ended in media glory.

Some officials say foreigners do not understand how India works. Sport Minister Manohar Singh Gill said it is like an Indian wedding where chaos ends in a well-planned ceremony.

But scandals have sent shivers down the government that since the summer has effectively replaced many organisers with top civil servants, giving the Games access to more funds.

However, the Congress government was late getting involved, highlighting its slow pace in dealing with issues ranging from economic reforms to separatist violence in Kashmir.

General elections later this year also may have put on hold many preparations, with politicians not knowing if they would be able to take the credit for any effort.

While high inflation is the biggest issue for a government that has eyes on millions of poor rural voters rather than Delhi residents, graft stories will worsen the Congress party's image.

'It's just one of so many goof-ups,' said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a political economist. 'This will not do the government any good. When you have a big bash and benefits are minimal it sharpens and widens the inequalities in India. People notice.'

(Reuters), 21 September 2010