Poor lose before Games begin

New Delhi is proudly growing into a world-class city. But a thick layer of poverty has been hidden away as the city prepares to host the Commonwealth Games.

For Ram Singh, a migrant labourer from the Punjab, a grubby pavement at Kashmere Gate in Delhi's old city has been home for more than two decades.

To protect himself from the harsh winter at night, Mr Singh, 50, seeks refuge in a temporary night shelter set up for the homeless, but since last month he has been forced to brave the cold in the open. In recent months, at least 100,000 of New Delhi's 160,000 homeless people have been booted out of night shelters, many of which have been shut down or demolished in a bid to spruce up the city before the Commonwealth Games takes place there in October.

"The government has demolished or shut down night shelters to beautify the city for the Commonwealth Games" despite the rising number of homeless, complains Miloon Kothari, the head of a group called Urban Rights Forum: For the Homeless. India, which won the bid to host this year's Commonwealth Games seven years ago, is only the third developing country to be given the opportunity to host the event, after Jamaica and Malaysia.

This event is to India what the Beijing Olympics meant for China - a marquee event to show off the country's brisk economic ascent and its growing clout on the world stage. New Delhi is eager to be seen as a world-class city. Besides shutting down 22 of the city's 46 night shelters, plans are afoot to raze some slums, stamp out hundreds of street food vendors and deport 60,000 destitute beggars to their home states.

This enormous metropolis of 14 million is also in the throes of an unprecedented construction boom bringing its infrastructure up to date in a bid to transform itself before the opening ceremony on October 3. New Delhi is building at dizzying speed new highways, expressways and flyovers, as well as widening existing ones. The Metro, the city's mass transit system, is fast expanding to become the world's second-longest. The city is building a Games Village spread over 63.5 hectares on the banks of the river Yamuna to house 8,500 athletes.

A four-lane, 2.2km tunnel is planned between Delhi's Linking Road and Lodhi Road to provide a smoother connection between the Games Village and stadiums. New Delhi is investing in new power plants to boost capacity to 7,000 megawatts from 4,500mw and ensure uninterrupted supply during the games. A new runway and terminal are being built at the revamped Indira Gandhi Airport, as well as 130 check-in counters, 55 bridges and 15 X-ray screening machines, all exclusively dedicated to 5 million foreign athletes and visitors from 72 countries expected to descend on the city during the games.

The city is adding new rooms in hotels and guesthouses to accommodate the visitors, as there is now a shortfall of 30,000 rooms. The government is investing heavily in a programme to teach English to low-income individuals such as drivers, waiters and security personnel, to help them deal with the expected influx of English-speaking tourists. "India is a growing economic power and hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2010 is a means of proving to the world that it is fast getting equipped to match other countries in terms of infrastructure, planning and execution," the government said in a statement on www.delhicommonwealth.com, a website dedicated to the games.

"India is desperate to prove that it can successfully host an event of this magnitude, with thousands of athletes and officials, so that it moves beyond being just a cricket venue and graduates to hosting high-profile events on a regular basis." The cost to give New Delhi this modern facelift? Some US$17.5 billion (Dh64.27bn). And there is an urgent need for more cash. Last week, AK Walia, the New Delhi minister of finance, disclosed that he had asked the central government to supply an additional 20bn rupees (Dh1.6bn) for games preparations.

So far, only two of the 12 games venues are finished. The deadline for their completion has been moved to March from last November. While this event might boost India's image globally as an economic powerhouse, such heavy spending is wasteful, critics say, as it does little to improve the plight of India's long-suffering poor. It is estimated that 800 million of India's population of 1.2 billion live on less than $2 a day. India's Congress Party-led government, headed by the prime minister Manmohan Singh, was re-elected last May on promises that the government would do more to ease the suffering of the country's poor.

But the government says the night shelters have been demolished not just for beautification of the city, but also to create much-needed space for infrastructure projects related to the games. It has done little to rehouse the displaced homeless, a majority of whom are economic migrants whose numbers are rising every year. The UN says India is expected to add 10 million migrants a year from villages to its 5,161 cities in the next 20 years. With cities such as New Delhi woefully ill-equipped to handle these rising numbers, the poor migrants are most likely to seek refuge on pavements or informal settlements such as slums, social activists say.

Pranab Mukherjee, the country's finance minister, in his annual budget last year announced an ambitious new anti-poverty scheme aimed at making Indian cities "slum free" in the next five years. Mr Mukherjee set aside 40bn rupees for the Rajiv Awas Yojana - a housing plan named after the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi - which would provide concrete housing to slum dwellers. He also increased by almost 90 per cent financial aid to the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, a national scheme meant to spruce up urban infrastructure.

Mr Singh set up a cabinet committee, overseen by 12 ministers, to implement infrastructure projects "with particular emphasis on urban slum clearance". But it could take years for these long-term urban projects to see any visible results. As it races to prepare for the games, the government is desperate to mask its widespread poverty, a dimension the growing economic power does not wish the world to see, critics say.

"We do no expect any modern civilised society to allow its people to die, whether it is for the Commonwealth Games or any other thing," the Delhi High Court said last week in a scathing indictment to the city's civic authorities. "This trend cannot be allowed." @Email:achopra@thenational.ae