The Commonwealth Games fiasco, more than anything else, has exposed the hypocrisy of our attitudes…

The Commonwealth Games have begun — and the common man or woman must wonder what all the fuss is about. Why has the media, those consuming the media, politicians, athletes, sports officials from around the Commonwealth, and even the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, been so hugely engaged in a 10-day event in one city in India? How does what happens over these 10 days make such a difference to the lives of India's 1.2 billion?

Yes, there has been huge corruption, the details of which will emerge once the games end. But is that new or all that surprising? Yes, the work is shoddy and the finish sub-standard. Yes, the toilets were filthy, liberally decorated with paan spit and stray dogs had a grand time. Is that so unusual? How and when did we delude ourselves into believing that things are now done differently in India? Merely because of the Delhi Metro or a handful of airports? Incidentally, systems even at these posh airports have broken down. Visit the toilets in the sparkling Mumbai domestic airport at night and you will see what is evident in the majority of public toilets around India.

Wrong lessons

We are drawing the wrong lessons from Commonwealth Games mess. We are told India's “image” has been damaged. That we should hang our heads in shame now. Why? Because we did not match up to the expectation of being “world class”, whatever that means? That we did not manage to put across to the world that India has changed, that it is now an efficient, non-corrupt, functioning democracy?

In my view, the Commonwealth Games fiasco is a much-needed reality check for us. It has not only exposed that we are a long way from being “world class”, but it has also reminded us that we remain a corrupt society and that our standards of efficiency, leave alone cleanliness — whatever Lalit Bhanot might think — are unacceptable.

If toilets for the athletes were filthy, think of the 665 million Indians who do not have a toilet. If the buildings where the athletes are housed are sub-standard, think of the millions who are without a roof over their heads. If some of the homeless get houses, courtesy the government, or some private builder availing a scheme, they usually leak, are lower than sub-standard and look like ancient relics within a few years of completion. Drive around Mumbai and you will see “new” buildings, constructed for the poor that already look decades old.

But more than the sub-standard structures that have apparently brought such disgrace to India, we should be worried about sub-standard attitudes. Why is no one really concerned about the workers injured when a foot overbridge collapses? Why do we know nothing about the workers who built these “world class” facilities, where did they come from, and what happens to them now that the work has ended? If some of them are guilty of having messed up the toilets, do we know whether they had access to sanitation, or even clean drinking water, where they lived for months, perhaps years, as they slaved over these “world class” facilities?

And then there is corruption. Blatant. In your face. Yet, we cannot forget that the real price for the deep-rooted corruption in this country is being borne by the poorest, those without the ability to pay their way.

In the welter of the scandals emerging every day from the Games, an important report on the real picture of India's maternal mortality rate was lost in the fine print. “No Tally for the Anguish” is based on a study by Human Rights Watch on the conditions women face in Uttar Pradesh when they seek help during and after pregnancy. The stories are chilling. They speak of women dying as they are pushed around from one facility to another, of husbands begging doctors and nurses to treat their dying wives, of petty corruption at every level that exacerbates an already scandalously high death rate amongst Indian women.

Other realities

One such story, which I quote below, will suffice as an illustration:

“One man I know had taken his wife for delivery to the CHC. He had sold 10 kilos of wheat that he had bought to get money to bring his wife for delivery. He had some 200-300 rupees [US$4-6]. Now in the CHC they asked him for a minimum of 500 rupees [US$10]. Another 50 [rupees] to cut the cord and 50 [rupees] for the sweeper. So he started begging and saying he did not have more money and that they should help for his wife's delivery. I... asked them why they were demanding money. The nurse started giving us such dirty [verbal] abuses that even I was getting embarrassed and wanted to leave. You imagine how an ordinary person must feel who wants help. –Activist from a local non-governmental organisation in Uttar Pradesh, March 2, 2009.”

And finally, the differing standards of hygiene that Lalit Bhanot so famously spoke of when those inspecting the site mentioned how appalled they were to see a member of the staff urinating in the public area. Well, here is a reality that even the most skilled managers of an event in India will not be able to hide. And although a part of the problem does arise from the lack of toilets — not all of it does as far as Indian men are concerned. For some reason, regardless of facilities available, the nearest wall is the favoured spot for urinating.

A recent study on women and sanitation in the slums in Mumbai by the activist group Jan Jagruti revealed that while men can use pay public toilets free of cost if they want to urinate, women must pay one rupee each time they use it. Yet, you see only men urinating in public and not women.

Long way to go

I know these are not pleasant subjects to write about when we are trying to project an image of ourselves as “world class”. But every time I hear that phrase, I shudder at our rank hypocrisy. How can a country where children die within days of being born, mothers die while giving birth to babies, millions die from communicable diseases, malaria and dengue are even today wreaking havoc in many parts of the country, still continue to harp on growth rate and some illusory standard of “world class”?

I hope some of our athletes, who in non-Games times are not given anything resembling the facilities available in Delhi now, do well in these games. And I hope that when the Games end, heads do roll and the men who have made this mess are held accountable.

But more than anything, I hope the Commonwealth Games drama will make many of us who live in comfortable homes in India's cities spare a thought to those who build our homes, those who clean them, those who have no homes, no toilets, no access to healthcare, no food and little work. That is the real India. And I don't know what “class” it is but it is a far cry from the concept of “world class” that we have been bombarded with for the last many months.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com