10/04/2010, 00.00
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Grand ceremony marks start of 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games

by Nirmala Carvalho
India is trying to project the image of an emerging and reliable nation but has to try to make people forget organisational nightmares. Human rights activist tells AsiaNews that the Games have come at huge cost in terms of human lives and workers’ dignity.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – The 19th Commonwealth Games opened in a grand ceremony held in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. At least on this day, India was able to make the world forget all the problems associated with the Games’ organisation. However, a human rights activist is unable and unwilling to forget the price workers had to pay in lives and rights.

Britain’s Prince Charles read a message from Queen Elizabeth, head of the Commonwealth. Indian President Pratibha Patil officially opened the Games, welcoming 71 nations and territories competing in 17 sports with 272 gold medals as their prize.

The three-hour ceremony saw 7,000 singers and dancers perform pieces from India’s classical tradition as well as yoga. India’s recent and ancient history were highlighted. Fireworks set the night sky ablaze. Thousands of children welcomed the various delegations with a special song. Tribute was paid to the message of non-violence of the Mahatma Gandhi.

About 6,700 athletes and officials marched into the stadium, preceded by traditionally clad women carrying the names of each country or territory. A balloon hovering over the centre of the stadium also displayed the names of each of the participating nations and territories.  A standing ovation greeted the delegation from Pakistan, India’s traditional enemy. Same treatment for India’s lone gold medallist at the Beijing Games, shooter Abhinav Bindra, who wore a traditional sherwani.

The Games are India’s way of celebrating its economic and political coming of age. However, it has also had to endure problems with the Games’ organisation, including accusations of corruption and poor quality and late facilities. For example, on 20 September, a pedestrian bridge collapsed, injuring 27 people. The same day, the deputy chief of the Games’ organising committee said that the athletes’ village was unfit for human use.

The somewhat bombastic speech by Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, was jeered by the 65,000 spectators present; their reaction was more positive when he said, “Our dream is coming true and India's big moment is finally here. India is ready.”

Still security remains a major problem for the 100,000 soldiers and police officers deployed around the city, near the athletes’ village and at the airport. The city of New Delhi appears under siege with stores closed, streets deserted, and athletes shuttled to and from the sporting venues in armoured vehicles. The authorities have also closed all schools for the duration of the Games; many residents have taken an impromptu holiday away from the city.

With the final price tag expected to hit US$ 6 billion, 60 times what it had been originally estimated, criticism over the Games’ costs continue.

One of the harshest critics is Lenin Raghuvanshi, executive director of the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR).

“Let us not forget the human cost of this grand spectacle, the 43 workers who were killed building Delhi Commonwealth Games facilities,” he said.

He told AsiaNews that for him the glitzy show came on the back of the poor of the nation. “It is the same as in China: workers’ rights were violated for the pride of the nation.”

“A study by Child Rights and You (CRY) at the Siri Fort construction site revealed that 84 per cent of the labourers were paid much less than the stipulated minimum wage of Rs 203 per day for unskilled workers. Additionally, a large chunk of the wages were taken away by the contractor,” Raghuvanshi said.

“CRY has done a two-month survey near the Dhyan Chand National Stadium, K Khanna Stadium, Talkatora Stadium, JLN Stadium and Lodhi Road. It found that the children of the workers employed in the construction of these facilities lived in inhuman conditions, forced to eat low quality food, drink unsafe drinking water, endure poor health are and no formal schooling. Women employed in the area had no kindergarten facilities.”

 “We are trying to project a fantastic image of our country,” the PVCHR said, “but the children of these workers do not go to school.” After families left home villages to follow fathers and husbands seeking work in the city, children end up “just loitering all day.”

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