Common wealth and the complexity of debris: Games highlight the painful growth of modern India
Barely had the construction dust settled than the temporary colours of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi also faded, leaving in their wake piles of debris, both physically around the city and also psychologically for its inhabitants. The former is easier to discern, as it is the tangible remnants of rapidly built projects and mismanagement, while the latter is a convoluted mix of pride, disgust and apathy that has settled into the collective national consciousness. Both are rife with contradictions.
Scavenging through the wreckage of what has been the most expensive Games in the history of the Commonwealth, you are struck by the sheer pace and scale of infrastructural development. This was a deliberate tactic, designed to inspire awe and shatter the stereotypical image of poverty-ridden India being trampled by turbaned Maharajas on elephants. But you’re also stunned with horror by the visible splits in the crudely stitched together seams of the city’s civic networks, skilfully window dressed to last only the span of the Games. The emotional pride in the spectacle of the city and its new medallion-bearing heroes is undercut by the corrupt scars of the political machinery and shame in systemic failures of civic bodies.
Landing in New Delhi’s lavish new air terminus embellished with contemporary Indian art seems surreal to those who recall the peeling vinyl floors and tattered false ceiling tiles of its predecessor. Driving along avenues flanked by newly laid pavements, over three million new trees sitting in designer tree guards wave their branches in welcome, and shining steel bus stops await 1,100 new buses. The contrast with crowds hanging off rusty speeding buses between stops, enveloped in darkness and dank fear, cannot be more stark. Besides a state-of-the-art metro, Delhi has also added 22 new flyovers, more than 120 bridges and underpasses and 20 multi-storey car parks. In just four years, the city’s road network has been expanded by a quarter of its original size. There is also new signage, monuments, public lavatories and the much-vilified Bus Rapid Transit corridors.
If these statistics fail to impress, then consider the list of recent additions to Delhi’s cityscape – 12 renovated sports venues (including Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, pictured) and five new ones, plus a new 118-acre Games village with its own 2.2km of dedicated highway. Surprisingly, none of the above successfully captured the pluralistic extravaganza of ‘modern’ India. Borrowed imagery and tacky details in seemingly ad hoc patterns bridge the spaces between the existing fabric, adding to the prevalent confused state of emotions in the mind of users. They now grapple with this supplanted steel and glass imagery which is unable to either encompass the complexity of a growing nation anchored by a deeply rooted cultural past, or provide impetus for prospective development.
In sifting through all this, perhaps it is imperative not to see the rubble of the Games as an end in itself, but as a critical catalyst for a much-needed urbanisation process that should be sustained and furthered. Now is not the time to seek answers in the debris but rather to ask questions of it. These should be pertinent to the needs, wants and desires of a nation and its people, so that they become foundations of a significant and not inevitable future.