Can you think of a time when an Indian government looked as pathetic as Dr Manmohan Singh’s government did last week? In a single week of international disgrace, the Prime Minister has succeeded in obliterating our proud new image of being an ‘emerging market’ and one of the fastest growing economies and replaced it with that old image of India as an eternally Third World country of starving millions and eternal squalor.
India made headlines all over the world last week for its incompetence, filth and shoddy infrastructure. Newspapers outside the territory of the Commonwealth had stories of the Games on their front pages. These were not stories about brilliant athletes or fine stadiums, like those that came out of China during the Olympics. These were stories of inferior construction, criminally careless officials and child labour. The picture of little boys cleaning seats in stadiums appeared everywhere, as did pictures of construction workers in rags. Then, there were those pictures of stagnant water in which mosquitoes bred the dengue fever epidemic that currently afflicts Delhi.
What I do not understand is why it took the Prime Minister so long to notice what was happening under his nose. What puzzles me is why our ruling family took so long to notice that deadlines were being missed and that the stadiums were in dreadful shape.
These Games have brought nothing but shame so far but since I am among those who search for hope in the most dismal situations, I have to say that I see a glimmer of it even here.
As someone who travels by road a lot, I can report that ‘Indians (continue to) defecate everywhere’ to use V.S. Naipaul’s unforgettable words. And, standards of public hygiene are so abysmal that small children are allowed to play barefoot in garbage dumps and can often be seen eating and defecating in them as well. This has nothing to do with poverty. It has to do with a lack of awareness of hygiene. Most Indians do not know that rotting garbage carries disease. So can Sonia Gandhi take personal responsibility for ordering her Health Minister to organise a powerful television campaign to teach basic hygiene and healthcare in all Indian languages? We have many public minded movie stars who would happily participate.
While she does this, would the Prime Minister take personal responsibility for ensuring that the building of infrastructure is done according to a clear set of guidelines? We do not have proper rules in place on either land acquisition or environmental clearances. It goes without saying that land must be bought (not acquired) at a fair price but once sold it cannot be demanded back. Environmental permissions must be given according to clearly articulated rules and after environmental hearings. But, once given environmental permissions must not be reversed. Nobody will invest in big infrastructure projects in India if they fear that they can be stopped by pressure from dodgy environmentalists.
If we can make public hygiene a political priority, put some urgency into infrastructure and improve facilities for sportsmen, the Games may not be a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.