Get ready for another Greek tragedy

Sanjay Kapoor

Six years after Olympic chief Juan Antonio Samaranch declared on the closing day of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games that this was the "best ever", the Greeks are kicking themselves for being mindless suckers for this praise. Little did they realise then that the games would leave such a nightmarish legacy. 

The Greeks spent about $12 billion and built 22 stadiums, besides sprucing up their urban spaces and beefing up their transport system. Indeed, 21 rusted stadiums, since the games got over, are padlocked and surrounded by barbed wires. Furthermore, the open air swimming pool is scratched and unusable. Worse, the Athens games increased the public debt of the Greek economy to such an extent that it left no headspace for any manoeuvring when the contamination of the economic recession hit Europe. So severe was the impact of the Greek profligacy that for a short while the European Union seemed like sinking. If it hadn't been for the quick bailout by Germany and France, Mount Olympia and Temple of Apollo would have come under the auctioneer's gavel. 

Of late, the disturbing Athens narrative has become part of the global anti-games discourse, but this has not prevented city governments from being consumed by the desire to organise ever bigger games. Beijing Olympic Games of 2008, where an estimated $33 billion was spent, has become a standard for this perverse spending. Big bucks are blown to pander to misplaced nationalism. At least, this is true about the thoughtless manner in which Delhi tried to compete with Beijing. If this is how we want to compete with our northern neighbour, then, surely, we would be bankrupt very soon.

Delhi'sCommonwealth Games(CWG) started off as an inexpensive enterprise, but after Beijing Olympics in 2008, the buzz in domestic circles was to make the game bigger and better than the Chinese. The cabal of sports administrators, contractors, foreign consultants, real estate developers, bureaucrats and corrupt politicians began to beef up the numbers. Old tricks of making money prospered in new situations. About Rs 1,000 crore was spent dressing up an old stadium. Rough estimates suggest that Rs 100-200 crore were enough for such a job. The litany of this spend is long and disturbing. All these expenses kept multiplying due to time overruns - so symptomatic of all project executions in this country where mega projects get routinely delayed by an average of 20 months plus.

Official figures are not forthcoming, but back of the envelope calculation shows that we may have spent more than the Greeks - about $12 billion or Rs 65,000 to Rs 70,000 crore. Australians, who are making the most noise about poor facilities in Delhi's CWG, spent a niggardly $1.2 billion. To their credit, they are a touch apologetic about what all they had to do to make their CWG a success in Melbourne and put out a study on how the Games benefited the city. 

The bizarre spending on the Games is difficult to explain in a poor country where 40 per cent people live be¬low the poverty line. To provide context to the expenditure on the Games, it is important to know that the government of India spent Rs 49,000 crore to provide one-time debt relief to 2.79 crore farmers in 2008. Surely, this relief must have stopped many a farmer from picking up a bottle of pesticide and taking his own life.

Similarly, Rs 41,000 crore were allocated to provide employment for 100 days in 200 pilot districts of the country. Till January 2010, 4.5 crore households had been covered in this scheme. 

Despite all the corruption and leakage, the rural employment guarantee scheme has proved to be a game changer. It has stemmed migration to the cities and improved purchasing power in the rural areas. The debt relief and rural employment guarantee scheme were together credited for cushioning the impact of economic recession in 2008. These gains could get squandered with the massive CWG expenditure heightening public debt - quite unsustainable at 75 per cent of GDP. International Monetary Fund (IMF) reckons that it should be under 60 per cent, but could work for India at even 70 per cent. 

The real games in India, too, will start - like in Greece - after the chief guest brings the curtains down on this lavish misadventure called CWG. Like in Athens, there will be no users for the fancy stadiums and other facilities. Plus, a plethora of punishment taxes, hidden costs and huge expenses will hit the aam aadmi in the days to come. And the truth is, a bankrupt Greece was rocked by massive street protests and social unrest. Are we ready for this pain?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2010

#Tags: