Reportage

A Ringmaster’s Reckoning

By ANIL VARGHESE | 1 August 2010
D.N. Patel for the caravan
Talkatora Boxing Stadium after a rain storm in July.

IT TOOK FOUR MONTHS TO SECURE an appointment with Suresh Kalmadi, the man responsible for bringing the Commonwealth Games to New Delhi. These months gave me ample time to hear his colleagues praise him as a fantastic organiser and someone with “his heart in the right place.” I also had time to hear some horror stories—he’s dictatorial, he has a short temper and hurls abuses at his staff. I wonder if he’ll lose his cool with me, as I review my carefully worded questions on a morning in early July in the waiting room adjacent to his official residence at 2 Kamraj Lane in Lutyens’ Delhi.

Before Kalmadi’s arrival, I am led to the study, its walls adorned with pictures of Kalmadi with various politicians and public figures, and shelves filled with books. His press secretary, a former sports journalist with 25 years experience named G Rajaraman, with no questioning or prompting, spends 15 minutes convincing me that Kalmadi is just misunderstood. Rajaraman, also a former basketball player, is a bespectacled man with a greying moustache and broad shoulders. He joined the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee’s (OC) media relations team in October 2009.

“When they were bidding for it, I was opposed to the Games,” he admits, “because it is a lot of money, the 20 to 30 billion rupees we are spending on the games.” But he says he eventually came around, and saw the potential for the Games to inspire India’s youth to pursue sports as a career.  Yet it’s the games played on the political level that have been getting all the attention.

As far back as a year ago, the President of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), Mike Fennell, had raised concerns that facilities wouldn’t be ready in time for the Games. Rajaraman says such delays are just part of doing business with the Indian government. “I guess the government had good reason to delay the construction, the release of funds and all that,” he says. “There is no other way to explain this. If we had completed construction by 2006, or, say 2008, 10 percent share the sarkari officers get is say x. Today it is 2 x, maybe. So my 10 percent has grown. So the longer I delay as a babu or a minister, the better it is for me. See the point?”

Then Rajaraman landed the final blow, “Are you telling me that the prime minister is not getting a cut out of all the big deals, or the Congress party? Or when the BJP was in power, it was not taking a cut? It’s become a norm in our country. It’s legal. All contracts are written now with a ten percent agent commission. It’s not illegal anymore…so the longer I delay, the better for me.”

When Kalmadi finally enters in his white kurta-pyjama, cellphone in hand, he is in a hurry and does not have the time to slip into his giant, revolving reading chair on the other side of the desk. Instead, he sits in the office chair next to mine. Kalmadi is less imposing than his reputation might suggest. He’s about 5’7 tall with a slight build and a nattily trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. He comes across as gentler than I expect. “Nobody has brought the Commonwealth Games to India,” he says. “I have been successful.” Landing the Games has Kalmadi eyeing an even bigger coming out party. “Nobody has brought the Olympics to India. That is my dream. I’m in that line.”

He will certainly leave behind some sort of legacy. In the past seven years, the Commonwealth Games has become a defining characteristic of Delhi and the National Capital Region. The Games has driven all sorts of infrastructure improvements, raised property values and pushed the expansion of the metro, which now extends to both Noida and Gurgaon. This line of thought—one that Kalmadi hews to—also holds that if Delhi is to be considered a world city and India a global power, then the capital needs to host world-class events. At the same time, the Games have also faced criticism for spending so much money on a sporting event—at last tally, about 100 billion rupees, according to Commonwealth Games Director General VK Verma. The Housing and Land Rights Network’s May 2010 report titled, ‘The 2010 Commonwealth Games: Whose Wealth? Whose Commons?’ questions the wisdom of this spending when “one in three Indians lives below the poverty line and 40% of the world’s hungry live in India, when 46% of India’s children and 55% of its women are malnourished.”

Former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, AP Shah, who presented the report, argues that the benefits of the Games won’t trickle down to Delhi’s neediest citizens. As the Games draw closer, there is also a third question that is worth exploring: what sort of leaders should govern India’s sports administration? Should it be run by not-so-successful politicians and businessmen who chafe at measures of accountability and scrutiny? The Commonwealth Games will be the yardstick by which our system of sports administration—one that appears to favour politicians over professional sports administrators—will be measured. With the Delhi government interested in bidding for the 2020 Olympics, this question becomes crucial. As the face of the Commonwealth Games, 67-year-old Suresh Kalmadi will likely be the person receiving the accolades if the Commonwealth organisers are judged a success, and the criticism if they are judged a failure.

IN NOVEMBER 2003, the members of the Commonwealth Games Federation met in Montego Bay, Jamaica. They’d gathered to decide which city would host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The two finalists were Delhi and Hamilton, a Canadian steel manufacturing hub an hour’s drive from Toronto.

As president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and leader of the Delhi bid, Suresh Kalmadi needed to make his pitch as attractive as possible. In his presentation, Kalmadi offered 100,000 dollars to each of the 72 participating teams, which included the perennial competitors and relatively affluent countries like Australia, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. The sum of 7.2 million dollars was meant to better the 5 million dollars Hamilton had offered as a scholarship training fund for athletes and coaches in needy countries.

It worked. In a secret ballot of Commonwealth delegations, Delhi scored 46 votes to Hamilton’s 22. It was hailed as a landmark victory for India. Hosting a major sporting event seemed to herald the arrival of an emerging superpower.

But not everyone was as impressed. Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former Union sports minister and Kalmadi’s colleague in the Congress party, said the 7.2 million dollars was akin to a bribe. The sports minister at the time, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Vikram Verma, who represented the government of India and the Delhi government at the meeting in Jamaica, took the same position.

“I was representing the Indian Government. I had letters from the prime minister, the Delhi chief minister, the lieutenant governor and Sonia Gandhi (then the leader of the opposition),” Verma explains by phone. “None of these letters mentioned the offer. If the offer was from the government, I would have come to know of it. Everything to do with the bid had been presented in the parliament. Not this. This was like a bribe. The other delegates we met there said this has never happened before. When Kalmadi mentioned the offer in his speech, I asked the sports secretary, ‘What’s this?’ He was also clueless like me. Later, I asked Kalmadi about the offer. He said it was to be borne by the IOA.”

The argument turned out to be academic, as the 100,000 dollars each was never actually paid to the 72 teams.

Verma says the concealment of the plan until the last minute was vintage Kalmadi: “This is how he operates—on his whims and fancies—and fails to take others into confidence, apart from the few who’ve been with him all the time.” In fact, many of the people surrounding Kalmadi have been with him for over a decade. Just before my interview with Kalmadi, I overhear the man who brought me coffee telling Rajaraman that the chairman (of the OC, as Kalmadi is known among his colleagues) was in an early morning meeting with Sachetiji. He was referring to RK Sacheti, Joint Director-General (Coordination), one of Kalmadi’s most trusted aides. He is also a director at the IOA.

A former OC employee, who spoke about activities in the OC on condition of anonymity, described Sacheti as Kalmadi’s peon. BB Kaura, Joint Director-General (Revenue), is an Indian Administrative Services officer who has worked on and off with Kalmadi since they co-organised the Asian Athletics Championships in 1989. He calls Kalmadi a father figure. M Jeychandren, Officer on Special Duty (Finance & Accounts), is from the Railways and has known Kalmadi since he was a railway minister in the 1990s. The last of the quartet is Sangeeta Welingkar, Additional Director-General (Chairman’s Office and Image & Look), who managed Kalmadi’s 2009 Pune Lok Sabha election campaign. A fifth aide, Vijay Kumar Gautam, a former Pune Collector and director in the Ministry of Sports, was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the OC until December 2009, when he was relieved.

There appears to be a pattern here. Over his career, many of his critics charge, Kalmadi has accumulated allies and appointed them to key positions in the OC who are familiar with the machinations of government but have little to no experience in sports management.

SURESH KALMADI WAS BORN and raised in Pune. “My ancestors were landlords in Mangalore,” Kalmadi says. But his father, who was studying medicine in Mumbai, liked Pune’s fresh air, and after completing his studies, he settled there. The junior Kalmadi, too, was encouraged to pursue medicine but he was influenced by other youth in Pune, home to the National Defence Academy (NDA), to join the armed forces. He was soon training to be a pilot.

When I asked another retired Indian Air Force transport aircraft a pilot a few years junior to Kalmadi about him, he retorted, “Why do you want to write about his Air Force days? He was just a drop in the ocean. Nobody remembers him. All he did was waste his time and drink coffee. Instead, you should write about Suresh Kalmadi the politician and his rise in the Congress party.”

After a decade, the military became too small a realm to contain Kalmadi’s ambitions. “I would do ten years in the army all over again,” he says at the start of the interview, “but not over ten years. It becomes too much of ‘yes sir, yes sir’ after that. Until then you are flying, etc, but then it becomes difficult. Less flying and more of administrative work. So I think I quit at the right time. I had seen the disciplined side of life, let me see the other side of life. That’s how I got into business and then into politics.”

Pradeep Potnis, his transport pilot batchmate, fondly remembers Kalmadi as a good master of ceremonies. And for the party to celebrate rejoining civilian life, Kalmadi sent an invitation card cut in the shape of a shehnai to his friends, including Potnis. One face of the card had Kalmadi in the Air Force uniform; the other, dressed in civilian clothes.

With a switch of attire, Kalmadi was flying high again— this time as a politician. In the late 1970s, when the Janata Party was in power, Morarji Desai, the then prime minister, had arrived in Pune. Kalmadi, the Maharashtra Pradesh Youth Congress President, led the first demonstration. “We stopped the car,” Kalmadi recalls. “Somebody threw a chappal, not me. Unfortunately, the chappal stuck to the top of the car. That was widely televised.” The perception, however, remained that Kalmadi did throw the sandal. He shot into the limelight from the publicity created by the incident.

In 1982, Kalmadi became a member of the Rajya Sabha, and stayed on for three terms. Even with his military background and connections in politics and business, something prevented Kalmadi from ascending Delhi’s political ladder. He waited for 13 years to find an entry into higher office, but only as a number two to the cabinet minister for railways. In 1995, the last year of the Narasimha Rao government, Kalmadi became a minister of state.

Over time, Kalmadi solidified his political power in Pune. That meant grooming his allies and sidelining political opponents. Vandana Chavan, a Pune lawyer, is familiar with Kalmadi’s wrath. In 1997, 23 villages at the outskirts of Pune were brought under the municipal corporation. These included the hills nearby that were rich in biodiversity. Suresh Kalmadi proposed a residential area in the hills. As mayor, Chavan opposed this. Chavan mobilised huge opposition to large-scale construction in the hills. Ninety-thousand objections were submitted to the municipal corporation; citizens young and old formed human chains to block the planned construction. But after softening his stand to a “green development plan” and gaining approval for the project, Chavan says Kalmadi “isolated” her within the Congress party. She claims he felt threatened by her rising popularity. 

Soon, the former mayor says she was barred from speaking at the municipal corporation’s general body meeting. She faced budget cuts for her wards. Even though she contested from the city’s Shivaji Nagar area, she says her recommendation of sincere and hardworking party workers for the municipal elections went unheeded.

Despite what she describes as good rapport with Delhi-based Congress leaders like Margaret Alva and even Sonia Gandhi, she claims Kalmadi began “poisoning their ears.” She, on the other hand, couldn’t always make the trip to Delhi to present her case. So when Gandhi proposed her name to chair the Maharashtra Women’s Commission, she claims Kalmadi convinced Gandhi to nix the nomination. She resigned, and eventually joined the Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar, with whom Kalmadi fell out in 1998. (Kalmadi cut short our interview before I was able to ask about Chavan’s allegations. He didn’t respond to requests for further comment.)

Kalmadi does not have much of a say in Maharashtra politics, unlike Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar’s nephew. Even with Ajit Pawar’s clout—he runs two of the state’s key departments, water resources and energy—his attempts so far to unseat Kalmadi from Pune have been futile. Punekars voted him to Parliament both in 2004 and 2009 and The Times of India’s Pune correspondent, Abhijit Atre, calls him the city’s “only national face.”

Kalmadi’s national profile seems to have been maintained and promoted through his association with sports. Although he denies it, in the aftermath of the successful bid for the Commonwealth Games and a victory for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in the 2004 elections, Kalmadi did have an eye on the sports ministry. However, it was Sunil Dutt, a widely respected former Bollywood star, who was given the charge.

Kalmadi’s strategy in Delhi seems to mirror his tack in Pune—evidenced by his handling of Dutt. In 2004, newly sworn in as the Union sports minister, Sunil Dutt flew to Athens, leading the Indian delegation for the Olympic Games. There, Kalmadi ensured that the minister was marginalised. The heads of national delegations were to be issued cars by the Games’ organising committee through the respective national Olympic associations. Only these cars would make their way through the VIP entrance into the stadium for the opening ceremony. Buses had been arranged for the lesser dignitaries.

At a dinner organised on the eve of the opening ceremony, Kalmadi told Dutt, “Come in the bus”— the only words the minister would hear from him during his entire stay. So the next day, as Kalmadi took the VIP passage, Sunil Dutt hopped onto a bus as one of the lesser dignitaries. A visibly disturbed Dutt confided to the Indian Ambassador to Greece, AK Banerjee, that Kalmadi “wanted to be the sports minister.” Banerjee recollected the incident during an interview in Delhi. The 75-year-old Dutt returned to India shaken. He passed away a year later.

Dutt had also told the ambassador how Kalmadi was not very reliable. This may reflect his standing in the Congress. He had parted ways with the Congress in the late 1990s, after a bitter falling-out with his long-time mentor, Sharad Pawar, only to rejoin later. And since Sunil Dutt, the sports ministry has passed through the hands of four different people. Kalmadi has not been one of them.

Yet, ask Kalmadi if he feels like an outcast in his own party, and he’s unequivocal. “No, not at all,” he says. “I am the secretary of the Congress Parliamentary Party, by the way. They made me secretary for the third time.”

AFTER DELHI WAS AWARDED the Commonwealth Games in 2003, the sports ministry began drawing up a blueprint for the event’s execution. Vijay Kumar Gautam, then a director in the sports ministry and one of the IAS officers closest to Kalmadi, was tasked with helping Kalmadi delegate responsibilities. Progress was slow, according to a former OC employee. Precious little seems to have been achieved from 2003 to 2005, says the employee, who requested anonymity to preserve his career. “Gautam was clueless where to begin and how to go about it. The delays began in the ministry.”

When the initial funding, 7.6 billion rupees, arrived from the government in 2007, the OC’s secretariat began taking shape. Shortly after, Gautam assumed charge as COO. His responsibilities included deciding who would provide technology services for the games, including bids for three key contracts: Timing, Scoring & Results (TSR), which enables times from a 100-metre sprint, for instance, to appear on TV screens; the Games Management System (GMS), which provides digital solutions for accreditation of athletes, media and visitors; and the Games Information System (GIS), which maintains an easily accessible databank on past performances and biographies of athletes and news. 

The delays followed Gautam from the ministry to the OC as the Games entered the execution phase. He was an “extremely shrewd and intelligent IAS officer, aware of every loophole in the system,” says the former employee.

Gautam maintained two offices: one in the OC Secretariat building opposite Jantar Mantar; and another at a nearby five-star, government-owned hotel, The Ashok. “He used to disappear before every important meeting to this second office,” says the former employee, who further alleges that the aim with most of the tenders seems to have been to restrict bidders to one of the OC’s choices. He says specifications were crafted in a way that most interested bidders did not make it past the pre-qualification round. Gautam’s technology staff had the added advantage of framing specifications that included complex details that few in the OC could understand. Take, for example, the telecom contract for the linking up of the venues to enable India’s first ever high-definition transmission of television coverage. Even before MTNL was awarded the no-bid contract, a high-ranking official in the technology division close to Gautam is said to have drawn up specifications so that equipment like routers and switches purchased by MTNL could only come from one supplier, the HCL-Cisco combine. Apart from manipulating the tender details, Gautam and company dilly-dallied. As deadlines approached, bidders quoting competitive prices backed out and the prices shot up. As the technology tenders were repeatedly postponed, Gautam was seen leaving for Pune every Friday, says the former employee.

I wanted to ask Gautam about these accusations directly. After two conversations, a text message and lots of unanswered phone calls, he finally agreed to meet me at the Sagar Ratna restaurant at The Ashok. Hours before the meeting was scheduled to take place, he sent me a text message: “Anilji, I am sorry. Just had my tooth extracted. It is more painful than my expectations. Talk to u late evening.” We never talked that evening, and he stopped taking my calls.

There were also irregularities in other areas, like the Games Management System. Spain’s MSL Group was one of the bidders for the GMS contract. Juan Leon Fuertes of MSL, who bid on the GMS contract, says that the tender process included an “absurd” pre-qualifying criterion: participation in either of the last two Asian or Commonwealth Games. The contract was eventually awarded to Goldmedal, the company that handled a small portion of GMS for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. This time the technology will cost Delhi more than four times what Melbourne paid, according to two sources. 

But the most egregious irregularities can be found on the playing fields. The field at Dhyan Chand National Stadium appears lush, green and neatly laid out. The turf, Poligras Olympia, manufactured by the American group Sports Technology International, was imported and installed for the clients by Jubilee Sports Technology (I) Ltd (JSTL).

The contract for laying artificial turf on five-and-a-half hockey pitches (five of regular size, 6,500 square metres each, and a smaller sixth one), including the ones at the Dhyan Chand National Hockey Stadium, which hosted the 2010 Hockey World Cup in March, eventually went to Unity Infrastructure, a construction company which then, in November 2009, began rushing through the renovation of the stadium. The OC issued the original tender for artificial turf in February 2009 and short-listed firms. However, a tug-of-war ensued between the OC and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) on who should  award the contract. The government asked the CPWD to go ahead with the process while ensuring the turf firms the OC had shortlisted were considered. A rival bidder, Deepak Khanolkar of the International Hockey Federation (FIH)-approved firm, GreenFields India, was not short-listed by the OC because their surface had not been used in ‘Asian Games/ Commonwealth Games/ Olympic Games/World Cup.’ Khanolkar points out that Unity Infrastructure, which bagged the contract, had no experience or expertise in artificial turf. So it roped in JSTL. According to norms, only an FIH-approved turf firm is eligible for such a contract, which comes with a five-year warranty once the turf is laid out. JSTL’s Rajiv Sharma says, “All we did was supply our turf to Unity, which had signed the contract with the government.” Since Unity Infrastructure is a construction company, not a turf firm, they should never have installed the turf. While CPWD’s pick was Unity, Jubilee was the OC’s.

JSTL, however, also has a colourful backstory. The website reads, under “Strengths of JSTL”:

JSTL as [sic] recently bagged projects in excess of US$ 8 million in the market of Artificial Sports Surfaces… The bidding and execution process of these prestigious projects has brought us in limelight [sic] and given us access to the government departments [sic], Commonwealth Games Committee and the project consultants related to the games… The fact that India has got the Commonwealth Games and is bidding for the Olympic [sic] 2020 has forced the government to set aside a huge amount of of [sic] funds for the expansion of the sports infrastructure in the country.

But JSTL’s site omits a few key details. In April 2001, when the Central Board of Excise & Customs Chairman BP Verma was arrested for being in possession of assets disproportionate to his income, it was reported that Jubilee Investment and Jubilee Medicare—the antecedents of JSTL—were the companies used as fronts for his numerous illegal transactions. The investigations, though, ended when Verma passed away a couple of years later.

Since the company has passed to his son, Siddharth Verma, they haven’t fared much better. Khanolkar said the laying of the pitches should cost less than 100 dollars per square metre. The team of Unity-JSTL was paid 196 dollars per square metre.

There are also concerns about the safety of JSTL’s playing surfaces. The last two pitches they completed, one in Balewadi, Pune, and other in Sonepat, Haryana, were abysmal. While the men’s Indian hockey team coach, Jose Brasa, was taking his boys through the drills on the Balewadi pitch in November 2009, he told The Indian Express, “The ball skips off the surface resulting in injuries to players.”

More grave concerns were cited when the 2010 Hockey World Cup was played on JSTL’s turf at the Dhyan Chand Stadium. The turf needs about three months to settle, says Khanolkar. Playing on a newly-laid pitch can cause injuries, but the pitches on which the tournament was played barely had a few weeks to settle.

Almost 30 to 40 percent of the costs incurred on Commonwealth Games contracts can be traced to the delay, says Sanjay Mohindroo, who spent a year roping in sponsors for the Games. The delay aside, Mohindroo, who was in Delhi on a year-long sabbatical from Deutsche Post, where he handles IT as a senior vice president, rues the lack of base estimates for any contracts awarded.

Kalmadi dismisses the notion that the delays are intentional. “This is utter nonsense,” he says. “Financially, I have no powers. For up to 50 million rupees, power to sanction expenditure lies with the Executive Management Committee, all the office bearers. More than that, there is an executive board. All the requests for proposals go through them. If a contract is not awarded, it’s because there’s some deficiency with it and we cannot go through. If somebody has not paid the earnest money deposit, which you are supposed to pay, and if there is a single tender, we can’t go ahead. We have to re-tender it. It’s only such cases, no other cases that have come up like that. And let me tell you, Comptroller Auditor General has gone through our accounts for many years and there’s hardly anything that’s come up.”

IN SEPTEMBER 2009, CGF President Mike Fennell sent a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Fennell warned him that the Games were headed for a “partial failure.” He had asked for the specifications for the 11 technology tenders, which included those for the Timing, Scoring & Results and the Games Management System in January 2009. Since specifications were yet to be framed, the OC was granted multiple extensions. One of Fennell’s main concerns was the technology department, which reported to COO Vijay Kumar Gautam. From January 2009 onward, Gautam’s reassurances of prompt action on technology tenders pacified Fennell.

In September 2009, the same month of Fennell’s letter, and with the Games a year away, Manmohan Singh’s government moved in to secure it. Jarnail Singh was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the OC. He came with an impressive CV. As Manipur’s chief secretary, he had weeded out thousands of ghost employees, swiftly brought corrupt civil servants to justice and overseen the completion of the Khuga Dam, which has been under construction for 25 years. Now, 34 functional areas of the OC and 6,000 tasks lay before him. “I don’t know why the Organising Committee has such a bad reputation,” wonders Jarnail Singh. “My colleagues are often asked by their friends whether they have been raking in millions.” He put procedures in place to ensure judicious use of funds and for each task, a timeline to gauge progress and ensure deadlines are met. Approval committees were set up both within the OC and in the Central Government to vet the release of funds. More coordination ensued between the OC and the ministries at the Centre, especially sports and urban development.

However, Singh has had to make do with the delays and the remaining inflated bids. Just as he wouldn’t know who benefited from 25 years of construction delays on the Khauga Dam, he doesn’t know what has tainted the OC’s reputation. He’s probably not interested, for he’s been given the task of steering a sinking ship to safety. He seems less concerned about how it found itself in the storm.

This seven or eight month delay, which CEO Jarnail Singh attributed to “more of [sic] incompetence” led to most of the contracts being signed as recently as in March. Singh blames Gautam: “He was not honest. Being the senior-most IAS officer in the OC, he should have assessed the volume of work and ways to deliver it. That is what we are trained to do.”

Gautam was relieved in December, three months after Singh’s appointment and two months after Fennell arrived in Delhi for a disappointing annual general meeting of the CGF.

AS THE GAMES DRAW NEARER, many people in the capital and beyond are asking who will benefit from the spectacle. One of the loudest voices belongs to Miloon Kothari, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. He now heads the Housing and Land Rights Network, and hosted a press conference in Delhi in mid-July to address Games-related questions. “The only people who will benefit will be the Organising Committee and Suresh Kalmadi, the construction companies, politicians and foreign consultants and companies,” he said. “It will leave the city a negative social legacy, especially the lower income group either directly by the way of displacement or indirectly through rising property prices and the city’s debts.”

Former Sports Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar remains the Congress’ most vocal critic of the Games. He worries that the Games is taking the focus away from making sports accessible to the general public. Not only did Aiyar term Kalmadi and the organisers a “rummy lot,” he had reservations about the idea of the Games itself. Competing for funds with Kalmadi’s ten-day extravaganza was Aiyar’s decade-old youth programme, Yuva Krida Aur Khel Abhiyan, which involves panchayats promoting sports in villages. He was denied 15 billion rupees over a period of ten years by the Planning Commission, and was appalled to see around half that amount being sanctioned for Kalmadi for his ten-day event. “Who are the Games for?” asks Aiyar. “Sports in [this] country are of the elite, for the elite and by the elite. How else does it make sense to have the Games in the central part of Delhi, where the per capita income is the highest in the country?”

Paying attention to promoting sports at a grassroots level and paying attention to the more immediate human issues of food, housing and the cost of living doesn’t appear to be a government priority until the last of the firecrackers bursts on October 14, when the closing ceremony of the Games takes place. After all, the Indian government has signed as guarantor for a successful Games—it is supposed to meet any shortfall of funds in the lead-up to it.

In 2003, the Evaluation Commission of the CGF, having studied the city’s bid, noted, “The US $422 million [19 billion rupees] Delhi expenditure budget lacks detail in many key areas, however, the overriding undertaking is that the Governments of India and Delhi will meet the costs of the Games to be conducted in accordance of the requirements of the CGF, and will underwrite any operating or capital budget shortfall.”

As things stand now, the first government grant of 7.6 billion rupees to the OC was followed by a ‘loan’ of nine billion rupees. Then, another grant of 7 billion rupees was approved for overlays—the generators, and all other temporary structures required for the duration of the Games. Recently, an internal assessment in the OC has uncovered the need for another 15 billion rupees. This is in addition to the billions being spent on upgrading and augmenting the city’s infrastructure.

One of the justifications for the vast sums spent on the Games is the legacy for the city. About the venues built for the Games, Kalmadi says, “Everything’s the best or almost the best. The Games Village will be better than the Beijing Olympics… We have the brand new airport, [the] metro coming up in the city and in all the venues. This is not for the 15 days of the Games. This is for the lifetime of Delhi. That’s the legacy of Delhi. It’s become a better city, moved ahead five years.”

Legacy, as defined by the BMJ (British Medical Journal), includes improvements in employment levels, the economy, housing, national and local pride, the environment, and sports provision. In a study titled ‘The health and socioeconomic impacts of major multi-sport events: systematic review (1978-2008),’ the journal concludes:

The available evidence is not sufficient to confirm or refute expectations about the health or socioeconomic benefits for the host population of previous major multi-sport events. Future events such as the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, or the 2014 Commonwealth Games, cannot be expected to automatically provide benefits. Until decision makers include robust, long term evaluations as part of their design and implementation of events, it is unclear how the costs of major multi-sport events can be justified in terms of benefits to the host population.

Early signs suggest Delhi has become a more expensive city due to the Games. Excessive spending on infrastructure projects has left the state government broke, as Delhi Finance Minister AK Walia confessed in April. It has now turned to the common man for relief, increasing several direct and indirect taxes, and significantly raising the cost of living. The past several months have seen hiked bus fares, water and power tariffs, and withdrawal of subsidy on LPG cylinders and increased VAT on a number of items. The Housing and Land Rights Network, a non-governmental organisation, recently discovered that 5.7 billion rupees from the Special Component Plan (SCP), originally allocated for the Scheduled Caste community of the city in the Delhi state budget from 2006-07 to 2009-10, has been re-allocated to the Games.

But these are larger questions. Suresh Kalmadi and the organisers of the Commonwealth Games have more pressing concerns. Three months from now, 8,000 athletes and 100,000 foreign visitors will converge on Delhi for an event that will define the city’s future. For the past few weeks, the front pages of the dailies have read like a comedy of errors, highlighting one misstep after another.

 In mid-July, two major rainstorms hit Delhi, paralysing the city. The rains also showed the weaknesses of the Commonwealth Games facilities. At the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Swimming Pool Complex, plaster was missing from the walls; an embankment was washed away at the full-bore shooting range at Kadarpur, Gurgaon; the Talkatora Indoor Boxing Stadium flooded, and the false ceiling collapsed at the Yamuna Sports Complex.

 

ANIL VARGHESE is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

IT TOOK FOUR MONTHS TO SECURE an appointment with Suresh Kalmadi, the man responsible for bringing the Commonwealth Games to New Delhi. These months gave me ample time to hear his colleagues praise him as a fantastic organiser and someone with “his heart in the right place.” I also had time to hear some horror stories—he’s dictatorial, he has a short temper and hurls abuses at his staff. I wonder if he’ll lose his cool with me, as I review my carefully worded questions on a morning in early July in the waiting room adjacent to his official residence at 2 Kamraj Lane in Lutyens’ Delhi.

Before Kalmadi’s arrival, I am led to the study, its walls adorned with pictures of Kalmadi with various politicians and public figures, and shelves filled with books. His press secretary, a former sports journalist with 25 years experience named G Rajaraman, with no questioning or prompting, spends 15 minutes convincing me that Kalmadi is just misunderstood. Rajaraman, also a former basketball player, is a bespectacled man with a greying moustache and broad shoulders. He joined the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee’s (OC) media relations team in October 2009.

“When they were bidding for it, I was opposed to the Games,” he admits, “because it is a lot of money, the 20 to 30 billion rupees we are spending on the games.” But he says he eventually came around, and saw the potential for the Games to inspire India’s youth to pursue sports as a career.  Yet it’s the games played on the political level that have been getting all the attention.

As far back as a year ago, the President of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), Mike Fennell, had raised concerns that facilities wouldn’t be ready in time for the Games. Rajaraman says such delays are just part of doing business with the Indian government. “I guess the government had good reason to delay the construction, the release of funds and all that,” he says. “There is no other way to explain this. If we had completed construction by 2006, or, say 2008, 10 percent share the sarkari officers get is say x. Today it is 2 x, maybe. So my 10 percent has grown. So the longer I delay as a babu or a minister, the better it is for me. See the point?”

Then Rajaraman landed the final blow, “Are you telling me that the prime minister is not getting a cut out of all the big deals, or the Congress party? Or when the BJP was in power, it was not taking a cut? It’s become a norm in our country. It’s legal. All contracts are written now with a ten percent agent commission. It’s not illegal anymore…so the longer I delay, the better for me.”

When Kalmadi finally enters in his white kurta-pyjama, cellphone in hand, he is in a hurry and does not have the time to slip into his giant, revolving reading chair on the other side of the desk. Instead, he sits in the office chair next to mine. Kalmadi is less imposing than his reputation might suggest. He’s about 5’7 tall with a slight build and a nattily trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. He comes across as gentler than I expect. “Nobody has brought the Commonwealth Games to India,” he says. “I have been successful.” Landing the Games has Kalmadi eyeing an even bigger coming out party. “Nobody has brought the Olympics to India. That is my dream. I’m in that line.”

He will certainly leave behind some sort of legacy. In the past seven years, the Commonwealth Games has become a defining characteristic of Delhi and the National Capital Region. The Games has driven all sorts of infrastructure improvements, raised property values and pushed the expansion of the metro, which now extends to both Noida and Gurgaon. This line of thought—one that Kalmadi hews to—also holds that if Delhi is to be considered a world city and India a global power, then the capital needs to host world-class events. At the same time, the Games have also faced criticism for spending so much money on a sporting event—at last tally, about 100 billion rupees, according to Commonwealth Games Director General VK Verma. The Housing and Land Rights Network’s May 2010 report titled, ‘The 2010 Commonwealth Games: Whose Wealth? Whose Commons?’ questions the wisdom of this spending when “one in three Indians lives below the poverty line and 40% of the world’s hungry live in India, when 46% of India’s children and 55% of its women are malnourished.”

Former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, AP Shah, who presented the report, argues that the benefits of the Games won’t trickle down to Delhi’s neediest citizens. As the Games draw closer, there is also a third question that is worth exploring: what sort of leaders should govern India’s sports administration? Should it be run by not-so-successful politicians and businessmen who chafe at measures of accountability and scrutiny? The Commonwealth Games will be the yardstick by which our system of sports administration—one that appears to favour politicians over professional sports administrators—will be measured. With the Delhi government interested in bidding for the 2020 Olympics, this question becomes crucial. As the face of the Commonwealth Games, 67-year-old Suresh Kalmadi will likely be the person receiving the accolades if the Commonwealth organisers are judged a success, and the criticism if they are judged a failure.

IN NOVEMBER 2003, the members of the Commonwealth Games Federation met in Montego Bay, Jamaica. They’d gathered to decide which city would host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The two finalists were Delhi and Hamilton, a Canadian steel manufacturing hub an hour’s drive from Toronto.

As president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and leader of the Delhi bid, Suresh Kalmadi needed to make his pitch as attractive as possible. In his presentation, Kalmadi offered 100,000 dollars to each of the 72 participating teams, which included the perennial competitors and relatively affluent countries like Australia, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. The sum of 7.2 million dollars was meant to better the 5 million dollars Hamilton had offered as a scholarship training fund for athletes and coaches in needy countries.

It worked. In a secret ballot of Commonwealth delegations, Delhi scored 46 votes to Hamilton’s 22. It was hailed as a landmark victory for India. Hosting a major sporting event seemed to herald the arrival of an emerging superpower.

But not everyone was as impressed. Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former Union sports minister and Kalmadi’s colleague in the Congress party, said the 7.2 million dollars was akin to a bribe. The sports minister at the time, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Vikram Verma, who represented the government of India and the Delhi government at the meeting in Jamaica, took the same position.

“I was representing the Indian Government. I had letters from the prime minister, the Delhi chief minister, the lieutenant governor and Sonia Gandhi (then the leader of the opposition),” Verma explains by phone. “None of these letters mentioned the offer. If the offer was from the government, I would have come to know of it. Everything to do with the bid had been presented in the parliament. Not this. This was like a bribe. The other delegates we met there said this has never happened before. When Kalmadi mentioned the offer in his speech, I asked the sports secretary, ‘What’s this?’ He was also clueless like me. Later, I asked Kalmadi about the offer. He said it was to be borne by the IOA.”

The argument turned out to be academic, as the 100,000 dollars each was never actually paid to the 72 teams.

Verma says the concealment of the plan until the last minute was vintage Kalmadi: “This is how he operates—on his whims and fancies—and fails to take others into confidence, apart from the few who’ve been with him all the time.” In fact, many of the people surrounding Kalmadi have been with him for over a decade. Just before my interview with Kalmadi, I overhear the man who brought me coffee telling Rajaraman that the chairman (of the OC, as Kalmadi is known among his colleagues) was in an early morning meeting with Sachetiji. He was referring to RK Sacheti, Joint Director-General (Coordination), one of Kalmadi’s most trusted aides. He is also a director at the IOA.

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