Guest ColumnRetrofit: Of soaring prices and a burgeoning Commonwealth Games budget
In a nation where food prices have just about everyone teetering on the ropes, to first ‘bribe’ foreign delegations and then get an unlimited financial commitment from the Union Government to host the Games is a criminal waste of time, money and effort. Fiscal deficit be damned, the nation’s prestige is at stake after all. And media needs to target the real meaty issues in its crosshairs. Issues that affect you and me, says veteran journalist Sandeep Bamzai.
Two interesting news items on the wires in the last couple of days - Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit says that she is nervous about the Commonwealth Games deadlines while in Gwalior, Sports Minister MS Gill denies any rift in the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee. Then on Tuesday morning, Mail Today reports that a Parliamentary Standing Committee has expressed serious doubts about the completion of various projects on time. The Ministry of Urban Development standing committee in its report says, “We are aware of slippages in certain project milestones, a fact supported by even the Comptroller and Auditor general”.
The recent Commonwealth Games Federation Coordination Commission was also wary of the time overruns on some of the stadia, though it commended the increased pace of work since the General Assembly in October. What is the role of media in all this? Is it merely reporting on events as they happen or is it more focused on unearthing the real story behind the all pervasive apathy and slowdown? Has Games organising committee boss Suresh Kalmadi, known for his sharp networking skills, bought the silence of big media? Is media highlighting the nature of abuse in financial oversight adequately? Is it doing enough investigations on the slow pace of work? Nobody has a clue about the kind of money that is being ploughed into the CWG blackhole. National prestige is being used as a cover to pour money down the drain. Bottomline is that the results are still not visible despite all this talk about presenting the best ever Games.
Do I sound like a Cassandra of Doom? Perhaps yes. But have you driven down Delhi roads lately. They are an unmitigated disaster replete with moon craters. The whole place resembles a gigantic bomb shelter while time runs out. Hardly nine months remain. And nobody in media is really calling Kalmadi & Co’s bluff. Media is not bothered about real issues, Hindi newswallahs are going bananas over ‘pralay’, which comes as part of global warming. News media doesn’t care about rising prices and its impact on household budgets and palates. The English press is more concerned over Advani and the BJP. For God’s sake, he is on the wrong side of 80 and is not going to be a player in 2014. If he chooses to hang on to a dream, media doesn’t necessarily have to mirror that image. Or maybe, the spin doctors are still running riot feeding a senseless and gullible media.
Take two important developing stories – Commonwealth Games and price spiral – and their treatment for instance. We have events being reported on, but real investigation into why there is a can of worms open inside the Games headquarters is being ignored. Media’s role is to be vigilant and throw into stark relief acts of omission and commission. Strangely, even the news telly wallahs have not been digging for dirt in the Commonwealth cesspool. This silence is deafening. Various players along the food chain – Sports Minister MS Gill, Kalmadi, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and even the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have allayed the fears of the Commonwealth frat by assuaging their hurt at the delay and paper over the matter by convincing one and all that all is well. The new clarion call remains that the Games will be the best ever. The latest anthem from ‘3 Idiots’ - All is Well - is the new underlying credo for the organisers. The Coorodination Commission, which has just completed its visit, has realised that there is now a time overrun on some of the stadia, including Jawahar Lal Nehru, where the opening and closing ceremonies are to take place.
At the recently concluded Sports Breakfast on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet in Port of Spain, Kalmadi said that the Games will cost an astronomical $2 billion. A few days later, Minister of State for Sports PP Patil says that the Games will cost the exchequer Rs 10,550 crore. That is well over $2 billion. The numbers just keep inflating as far as the Government spend on next year’s Commonwealth Games in the Capital are concerned. The total estimated expenditure likely to be incurred for hosting the mega event now stands at a whopping $2.28 billion. This information was provided by Pratik Prakashbapu Patil in a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) last week. Patil had some positive news to give though, stating that the CWGOC has estimated that it would generate revenue of around Rs 1,708 crore from international/domestic broadcasting, sponsorship, ticketing, licensed merchandise, donations, etc. The shortfall, not much, just a wee bit - only Rs 8,842 crore.
Sports Authority of India and CPWD will be spending Rs 962 crore on the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium, as much as Rs 669 crore on Indira Gandhi stadium, while DDA will spend Rs 827.85 crore on the Games Village and competition and training venues. These are obscene sums of money. If the Prime Minister’s Office has intervened and appointed key bureaucrats in the organising committee management team, it is primarily to keep an eye on the financial profligacy. Let us understand that at this late stage with just nine months to go for the unveiling of the Games, the Government is left with no alternative. It has to go ahead and provide the necessary infrastructure. There is a sense of fait accompli. So, India has to deliver and if there are cost and time overruns, so be it.
Now let me rewind to 1982, when India had hosted the Asian Games. The event infrastructure cost Rs 55 crore. Yes, you read it right - Rs 55 crore. Now even if this figure were to be adjusted for inflation 27 years later, the new figure should be in the vicinity of Rs 550 crore, not Rs 10,550 crore as the Government has claimed in Parliament. Taking all manner of cost escalations into consideration, the Rs 550 crore can be doubled to Rs 1,100 crore. But the JLN stadium alone is seeing a total expenditure of Rs 962 crore. Something is amiss here. Yes, steel, cement and construction costs have spiralled over the last two and half decades, but the yawning chasm between Rs 55 crore and Rs 10,550 crore is unthinkable. If one adds all the allied city developmental cost, which includes the metro, new airport, flyovers, underpasses, beautification and whatchamacallit, then this Rs 10,550 crore balloons to Rs 62,000 crore. Party poopers will stand up and ask a simple question; can India afford these Games? Financial elasticity of a kind not seen in recent memory is propelling these Games forward.
Higher minimum support prices and the resultant crop switching from food to commercial crops is playing havoc with the farming sector. Net sown area has remained more or less static since 1970, when it was 141 million hectares. So, with acreage not increasing, yields floundering despite a 15 per cent spike in the use of fertilisers, the farm output is shrinking even as the mouths to feed has shot up considerably. Population as per the census has grown from 54 crore in 1970 to 102 crore currently. Significantly, agriculture as a percentage of GDP has slid from 41 per cent to 17 per cent during the same period. The minimum support price for rice was Rs 570 per quintal in 2006, it is Rs 850 now, while wheat MSP has risen in the same period from Rs 650 per quintal to Rs 1,100 now. Uttar Pradesh cane farmers find it far more remunerative to grow wheat and rice, rather than sugarcane, which fetches them a pittance in comparison. This has led to distortions in the system, leading to the recent cane farmer agitation because the Central Government mandated through an ordinance that a Fair and Remunerative Price would be fixed. The state government would pay the difference to the farmers over and above that and not the mill owners who used to do so earlier. This caused ferment and brought Delhi to a standstill.
The issue of rising prices has vexed all households in the land. An egg costs Rs 4, potato, onion, sugar and dal prices have shot into the stratosphere. The food inflation genie is out of the bottle at a ridiculous 20 per cent and there is no sign of respite in sight. It is the same story on the price spike front as well. Barring a few stories on rising prices, there is no campaign on the kind of dismay that is engulfing India’s middle class as it collapses under the sheer weight of searing prices.
India won the right to host the Commonwealth Games as far back as November, 2003 by beating back Canadian city Hamilton’s challenge in Montego Bay. The clincher came when India offered each of the 72 nations $100,000 as a ‘bribe’ under the guise of an athlete development grant. This swung the vote 46-22 in favour of India. This is what former sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyar told this writer recently, “The BJP sports minister at the time Vikram Verma was in Montego Bay along with IOA president Suresh Kalmadi pitching for the Games. When things got tight and it appeared that India would end up on the losing side, Kalmadi got permission from Verma to call up then PM Atal Behari Vajpayee to make the offer of offering an ‘athlete development grant’ to each one of the CGF nations to swing the vote. But are you sure, it was $100,000 per nation? My sense it was a million dollars per country that was offered. Once the bid was won, the organising committee - again the IOA in a different garb - sought the government’s permission for a small sum of money, as expenses to organise the Games in Delhi. This was a temporary financial loan which was to be returned to the government. What started out as an initial temporary financial proposal turned into an unlimited financial commitment.”
In a nation where food prices have just about everyone teetering on the ropes, to first ‘bribe’ foreign delegations and then get an unlimited financial commitment from the Union Government to host the Games is a criminal waste of time, money and effort. Fiscal deficit be damned, the nation’s prestige is at stake after all. Therein lies the rub. For six years since 2003, we have been sitting on our fat backsides waiting for closure of the Games infrastructure. CAG was the first to blow the lid on this gargantuan exercise, Fennell added fuel to the fire, Kalmadi’s conduct stoked it further. With no financial oversight body, the Games budget has seen repeated cost escalations. Goalposts continuously shift, the December 31, 2009 deadline has been shifted to March 31, 2010. And in some cases June 2010 now. Meanwhile, nobody has a handle on the chaos that prevails. Both on the Commonwealth Games and prices fronts. All we have are promises.
And media needs to target the real meaty issues in its crosshairs. Issues that affect you and me. Or is it that these issues aren’t sexy enough? And Advani is.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.
The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)
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