India raids fund for poor to pay for Commonwealth Games

'Untouchables' trust raided as costs spiral, reaching a third of the country's annual budget, but activists say the figure could be even higher.

NEW DELHI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 03: An Indian migrant labourer takes water from a site back to his temporary dwelling after working at a construction project in front of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on February 03, 2010 in New Delhi, India. The children accompany their parents to the work site, where if they are prepared to work, they will receive money for bread an milk and be provided with dinner by the contractor. The Commonwealth Games are due to be held in the Indian capital from October 3-14, 2010, but concerns remain over construction of its sporting and transport infrastructure. The sheer scale of the project has drawn an enormous population of migrant workers from all over India. This week the High Court of Delhi has sought a response from the Government over the alleged failure to provide all the benefits of labour laws to workers involved in construction work for the coming Commonwealth Games. Workers are being paid below the minimum wage in order to complete these projects whilst also being forced to live and work under sub standard conditions.  (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI // Out of control spending on the forthcoming Commonwealth Games has seen tens of millions of dollars siphoned off from funds earmarked for social projects to help India's Dalits, or untouchables, according to documents obtained by a non-governmental organisation. The Delhi State Government should have set aside the money to build healthcare facilities and schools for the city's three million Dalits, who occupy the lowest rungs of the Hindu caste system.

The funds were set aside to end the practice of manual scavenging - clearing human waste from waterless toilets by hand - a job many Dalits still perform. But over the past four years, authorities spent 7.4 billion rupees (Dh580 million) of those funds on preparations for the October Games, according to government documents obtained by a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation under India's powerful Right to Information Act.

The money was spent on the construction of two stadiums, beautifying the city, erecting street lighting and repairing major roads, according to the NGO, the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN). It was also used to pay for a cultural show to welcome the Queen's Baton, the Games' version of the Olympic torch, to Delhi. "This is criminal. We demand a full enquiry into who diverted these funds," Miloon Kothari, the executive director of HLRN, said in an interview yesterday.

"Thousands of low-income families are being deprived of access to civic services and facilities as a result." He said the national planning commission, headed by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had repeatedly signed off on Delhi government budgets during the period despite the misuse of funds. "The prime minister himself should explain how these games were paid for," Mr Kothari said. The prime minister's office refused to comment on the allegations and the spokesperson for Sheila Dikshit, Delhi's chief minister, could not be reached.

"No doubt the Commonwealth Games is an expensive affair, but let me assure you that not a single welfare programme has been compromised," Ms Dikshit said in an interview this month. The scandal is the latest to attach itself to the Commonwealth Games, which India had hoped would act as a coming-of-age party after two decades of economic growth - just as 2008 Beijing Olympics did for China. Last September, the slow pace of construction at many of the sporting venues led the head of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Mike Fennell, to warn that the Delhi might fall short of the standard set at past Games, or worse, that it would "fail from an operational perspective".

This year, a panel set up by an Indian court reported that migrant workers at Games construction sites were living and working in "rock-bottom" conditions with unsafe equipment, without access to proper accommodations or medical facilities, and were paid less than the minimum wage. The report also noted allegations that 43 workers had died in construction projects, compared with six reported deaths during preparations for the Beijing Olympics.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth, who heads the Commonwealth, has said she will not be able to attend the Games, the first time she has failed to attend in 44 years. Several top athletes, such as the Olympic sprinting champion Usain Bolt, citing injuries or clashes with other commitments, have also said they will be absent. "The stadiums we have built are world class, but it is sad that some of the leading sportspersons are not coming to Delhi," the sports minister, MS Gill, said at a press conference this week.

"The star athletes pulling out from the Games does not please me or the Organising Committee." Another issue is the explosion in the Games's cost since India bid for them in 2003, causing many to question whether a country that is home to one third of the world's poor should be hosting such a large-scale sporting event at all. Initially, the government said the cost would be 18.9bn rupees. Today, however, the official figure is 100bn rupees, though independent experts calculate it to be closer 300bn rupees, roughly equal to one third of the amount the Indian government spent on health care last year.

Neither figure includes the cost of Delhi's new international airport, which opened this month, or the extension of the metro, key elements in the city's plans to host the event. Even without them, the Delhi Commonwealth Games are to be the most expensive to date, costing six times more than the last Games, in Melbourne in 2006. "There is no justification for spending that amount of money when a large part of the population still lack the basics such as food and shelter," Mr Kothari said.

"We are told it is a matter of national prestige, but if we could show we could end poverty that would be a real source of pride." In March, Delhi residents were told they would have to help foot the bill for the Games when taxes on petrol, cooking gas, ghee, fertilisers, wood, cooking utensils, tea, coffee and alcohol all rose sharply. Last week it emerged that the government had asked large state-run enterprises, including the Indian Cricket Board, to sponsor the Games because there are not enough private sponsors.

Yet, none of this is dampening the rhetoric of the Indian organisers who claim that much like Indian weddings the entire event will pull together at the last minute. "It will be the best Commonwealth Games ever," said Suresh Kalmadi, the chairman of the Organising Committee in Delhi. "We know what we need to do to be ready. These things always happen before such mega events and there is no reason for panic. It is our promise that the Commonwealth Games 2010 will be a success."