The opening and closing ceremonies received wide acclaim but left many citizens like me a bit terrified and confused.
Now that the terms of inquiry into the conduct of the Commonwealth Games have been extended, let us hope that the process of probe will be more open than was decision-making for the CWG. Let us also hope that the review will cover the opening and closing ceremonies as well, both in terms of their content and the decisions and choices involved in the actual design of these major cultural events. Both ceremonies received wide acclaim but left many citizens like me a bit terrified and confused. There were uplifting moments, but there was something deeply upsetting too. I felt as if the core of my identity as an Indian was going through an unexpected surgery. I could not stop feeling that an India I knew was being declared dead. Who had the taken the decision to do so, I wonder. The Games are over and the propaganda of national prestige cannot be used anymore to silence dissenting voices. Let us revisit the experience of witnessing the dramatic changes this historic event introduced in the ethos of our country and its capital.
It was early in the morning and the year was 2008. During my daily walk, I noticed that someone had dug a trench around the tree I used to pass each day. Many roots were exposed. I thought perhaps the botany department of my university had decided to cure this tree of some root infection. The next day I saw similar trenches around more trees, and within that week I noticed that the root systems had been bundled up in white plastic. Evidently, the trees were about to be relocated. One by one, over the next few weeks, hundreds of beautiful mature trees thus treated disappeared, leaving open holes in the ground. Pre-dawn trucks carried them away to an unknown destination. It was a kind of emergency. No one knew what was happening and how many trees would eventually go. It was rumoured that the contractor shifting these trees earned Rs.10,000 per tree. There was no way of verifying this or anything else that happened over the next three years on the campus of Delhi University and in other parts of the city. Let the inquiry committee find out how many trees survived the shifting and where they now are. I would certainly like to visit them if they are alive. Even if they are found dead, which is likely, it would be a relief to have the mystery surrounding their relocation unravelled.
How Delhi's public learnt to endure the pervasive but unexplained disruption of their daily life and the wilful destruction of the environment cannot be easily assessed or documented. A sudden loss of common civic rights took place. It was sometimes described as a kind of ‘sacrifice,' but the idea of sacrifice includes acceptance of a cause and attribution of greatness to it. Not for a day did the cause look great. When the display part of the ordeal was over, some people expressed pride and pleasure. For them as well as for all the others, it is important to remember that the consequences of the ordeal will stay for years and debates will be necessary to determine what exactly the Games meant for the nation. This is why it is important to recall what preceded the event and happened during it. I remember the day the Platinum Jubilee park on the campus was closed and decimated so that it could be converted into a parking lot. There was no discussion, no mention of the cost it had incurred only a few years ago. It was clear that the people who had taken over were far more powerful than the ordinary residents of the area and students. When the 2010 session began, the students were blocked from their own hostels. Several buildings were demolished. Telephone cables were repeatedly slashed, electricity and water supply was disrupted, and traffic turned into chaos. On the sidewalks, the Games took the form of a festival for contractors dealing in tiles. New tiles were installed in millions and in every conceivable colour and design. Old tiles, even the ones laid out a few months ago, were dug out. Towards the end, the tile-diggers went berserk and replaced the ones they had placed a few weeks ago. Rickshawpullers and street vendors were treated like pests — to be hit any hour of the day when the authorities wanted the road to look world class. Construction workers were made to work day and night; many who got sick, injured or died were made to disappear.
Civic and social costs apart, the financial cost of the Games will remain difficult to judge. Towards the final months, the media gave a glimpse of the scale of corruption involved in the procurement of utilities, but even if we leave those stories aside, the legitimate expenditure raises fundamental questions about the nation's priorities and values. Estimates vary but the average figure is astounding. It exceeds the total annual contribution of the Centre to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). How will the government convince anyone that India's ability to turn its children's right to education into a reality is hampered by a budget constraint? Why would the tribal people of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, who are fighting with their backs against the wall, believe that their country lacks the resources to rehabilitate them with dignity when mining companies require them to be thrown off their forest land? The profligacy exhibited in the Games signifies the state's seal of approval of the lifestyle of India's new maharajas. There is no point now fantasising that we can persuade Mukesh Ambani to gift his 27-storey house and its hanging gardens to Mumbai's children as a vertical amusement park. What he has spent out of his own earnings is merely half the SSA's annual central outlay.
The callous financial behaviour was matched by the gross choices made in the representation of culture. A kay item of the closing ceremony was the electronic representation of a giant size woman dancing in the nude. The item was reputedly imported from Germany, along with a team of laser technicians. It was truly a crowning moment — in the history of a society being engineered by determined hands. Exactly whose hands they are is hard to say, and that is why this is a memoir of feeling disoriented and shaken. Perhaps the inquiry committee will find out who approved that laser show and the Bollywood dance which followed. Let it also ascertain the justification for the decision to ask the young women who carried the medals for distribution to victorious athletes to dress themselves in a bridal lehenga. If the inquiry process throws even modest light on such choices, it will help to make sense of the leap we have taken in the dark, deluded in the name of the nation and its glory.
In the opening ceremony, there were items displaying the Buddha and Gandhiji. We do need to construct, with memory and imagination, what they would have thought of the indignity meted out to womanhood in the laser show of the closing ceremony. Those who choreographed the closing ceremony do not distinguish between women's bodies and common utilities. They apparently attribute sovereignty to the male right to consume both as the basic point of India's current economic growth. As philosopher and historian Lata Mani has pointed out, we are witnessing the rise of a new kind of body politic which is hostile to the Constitution's vision of a nation which guarantees dignity to all —including women and children, not just men. If the state is the primary instrument of realising that vision, the Games have certainly damaged the state's credibility. It will take a long and patient effort to restore public confidence in the state's decisions to the pre-Games level. It was not particularly high, cynics might say, but even they would agree that the Games have injured civic faith. Whatever can be done to heal that injury should be done.