Last week, a radio show host asked me whether, given all the criticism, the $1 billion (Rs4,438 crore) that was spent on preparing for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) was a waste. My reply was that one could not say for sure, which, on the face of it, may have sounded evasive. My doubt stemmed from one single reason: the feel-good factor. How could one put a price on this?
Responding directly to the question on costs is easy. What is $1 billion for a trillion-dollar economy like India? We can argue ad nauseam that this money could have been more fruitfully spent elsewhere. Absolutely, but was that the idea in the first place? Most certainly not. Then the question should be rephrased: Has India got the bang for its buck? Absolutely not, but more of this later.
Returning to the initial premise, it is evident, to at least all those who stayed back in Delhi, that the CWG has left us with a feeling of exhilaration. There are five reasons why I believe it to be so. First, the event gave us Shera, the loveable mascot. Children have loved Shera (In fact, a colleague’s daughter sobbed uncontrollably when she failed to see the loveable Tiger, a throwback to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, at the opening ceremony).
Second, India’s performance at the CWG, a mini international arena albeit, has been impressive. There is such a big difference between seeing the country’s athletes winning medals in real time, whether in the stadium or on television, and reading about them or seeing them with a time lag on TV, performing in another country. The thrill of seeing Alka Tomar, against all odds, upstaging the Athens Olympics silver medallist Tonya Verbeek, can only be experienced.
No doubt, the home crowd advantage has brought out the best from the athletes. No wonder then that India had improved on its medals tally at the last CWG in Melbourne by the end of the first week of the Games.
Third, the CWG has grabbed our attention in a way we could not have imagined; difficult to believe but it has indeed overshadowed even cricket, India’s biggest sporting obsession. Like most Indians, I too am a cricket fan. But for the sensational game against Australia in Mohali, which India won, adding to the feel-good factor, it would have been difficult for the five-day game to get the attention it did.
Fourth, a big takeaway from the CWG so far has been that Indian participants in the so-called unglamorous sports have been winning medals and grabbing the attention. While Abhinav Bindra’s shooting gold at the Olympics told a nation “Yes, we can”, at the CWG it is the runaway success of events such as women’s wrestling, archery, gymnastics and swimming which has renewed this self-belief. That Haryana, which has a dubious record of female infanticide, could send so many women to the winner’s podium is food for thought. So is the fact that the poster boy of Indian swimming is Prasanta Karmakar, a para participant who no doubt overcame huge odds in his life outside of a swimming pool, giving India its first ever medal in swimming at the CWG. Similarly, India made its debut on the winners’ podium in gymnastics after Ashish Kumar won, not one but two medals, and 16-year-old Deepika Kumari grabbed an archery gold.
And fifth, with most roads debris-free and some of the walkways usable, New Delhi just about bears the look of a city that is welcoming; the improved weather, of course, helps. Imagine what it would have been like if the civic authorities had not messed up on their original promise. It is clear then that the intangible feel-good factor has offset all the negatives emerging from the lack of planning, probably making it worthwhile for India to have hosted the Games. But it begs the question as to why the organizers didn’t get it right on planning, considering that India won the bid way back in 2003. The bigger damage of bad planning is that there is no legacy for sports built into the CWG. Therefore, the tangible benefits are accruing by default.
Capital Calculus had flagged this on 9 November (Commonwealth Games: showcasing lack of vision) and had in fact drawn attention to the fact that Glasgow, the next venue for the CWG in 2014, had launched its legacy plan in 2009. Their motto: “An Active Scotland, A Connected Scotland, A Sustainable Scotland and A Flourishing Scotland represent our ambitions for a lasting and positive legacy. They are about making faster progress towards a healthier nation; developing healthy communities; and a strong and flourishing economy.”
To be sure, since then the Union sports ministry has initiated action to discuss a legacy plan for the expensive sports assets that have been created and may have something in the offing towards that objective. But it may just be a case of too little, too late.
However, for now let us make the best of the last few days of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (the last such big sporting event was the 1982 Asian Games) for the denizens of Delhi. Jai Ho!
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
To read all of Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns, go to www.livemint.com/capitalcalculus