Thursday, 30 September 2010

Will downpours in Delhi wash away the new face of India?

The nailbiting countdown to the Delhi Commonwealth Games beginning on 3rd October continues. The event, the biggest sporting event India has ever hosted, was supposed to highlight a new India, modern, industrialised, technologically advanced, a major global player. But preparations have been plagued with problems, the construction programme fell behind schedule and concerns over substandard work came to a head when a footbridge collapsed and 23 labourers were injured. This was just one day after part of a false ceiling collapsed in the weight lifting arena. The accommodation facilities for athletes were described as 'filthy' and for a few days it seemed the event might be cancelled. But there has been a last minute rush to get ready to host the spectacle, with extra workers brought in. Here in the UK, the media is reporting everything that tarnishes the image of India that the event was supposed to project, including athletes deciding not to attend and sex trafficking fears.

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The Games Village for the athlete's accommodation, and other construction sites, have had to contend with a heavy monsoon, bringing leaking buildings and water in basements. This map shows the site of the Games Village on the eastern bank of the Yamuna River, an ecologically sensitive area in the path of the flood plains. Construction was suspended in August, after the river rose above the danger mark, which it has done repeatedly ever since, threatening the embankment built between the river and the Games Village. The high water mark follows the heaviest monsoon rains in 30 years, but is not really surprising, as the area floods every ten years or so. The area around the Games Village has been inundated with water and hundreds of people in low lying areas have been sent to relief camps. Mahima Kaul is making a documentary about the development of the Games Village site. People have put up with the the city being a 'complete construction zone, with rubble everywhere, and the capital programme has been disorganised with a host of different government bodies and contractors involved, with no body to oversee the operation, so all are 'passing the buck' for the problems. The fall out from the Games is likely to include corruption allegations, which are already surfacing. There are suspicions around how permission was granted to build the Games Village on the flood prone-site.

A wonderful article by Amita Baviskar, back in 2007, in the early days of preparations, raised doubts about the benefits of the Games for Delhi's people anticpating that the event would present merely a 'mirage of a world class city'. Delhi hosted the 1982 Asian Games with the same hopes of creating a world class city from the infrastructure, raised profile and tourism of the event. The stadiums and other buildings have become dilapidated white elephants. The legacy of the event was not vital infrastructure for Delhi's citizens but the conversion of public green space, including chunks of the Siri Forest, to private property. The article raised  concerns about siting the Games Village on the banks of the Yamuna River. The flood plain is needed to accommodate monsoon swells and to replenish groundwater supplies, but the games organisers chose to displace slums rather than undertake the complex land acquisition process for more suitable sites including unused industrial sites or an abandoned airfield. The main beneficiaries of the preparations for the Commonwealth games appeared to be the construction companies. The destruction of green space for roadworks, flyovers and tunnels appeared to be gratuitous, and there were credible allegations of corruption emerging even then, with indications of a 'feeding frenzy' of inflated contracts and under the table payments to get projects sanctioned.

An article in InfoChange India, picks up on these issues in the build up to the Games in June. Who gains from the games? covers the release of a report by the Housing and Land Rights Network, The 2010 Commonwealth Games: Whose Wealth, Whose Commons? Laws relating to planning, environmental protection and labour rights were suspended for the 'hysterical development activity'. The whole process was shrouded in secrecy, with a lack of government accountability. Many people in India are questioning the $422 million budget for an event lasting just 12 days, with the final figure likely to escalate to five times this amount. The glitzy event is being staged whilst India languishes at 134 on the Human Development Index, as it has done for the last 15 years. The event has been criticised as another war against the poor who are cleared from the site. This typically accompanies global sporting events, including the most recent FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the Olympics in Beijing. Many have lost their livelihoods from the construction for the games in Delhi, such as street vendors and rickshaw carriers, and people have been arrested for begging.

Many athletes will not be attending the games because of fears over the accommodation conditions, but it is luxurious compared to the living conditions of the 100,000 families who have been evicted from slums on the site. The majority are now living in even worse conditions as they have been resettled in an area where there are few services such as schools and hospitals, and few jobs. Others do not even have a makeshift dwelling and are living under flyovers.

Even in its current state, some of it dilapidated before it is opened, the athletes' accommodation is far superior to the living conditions of many of the 400,000 migrant labourers who worked on the construction programme. A monitoring panel presented a report to Delhi High Court documented poor working conditions with many incidences of squalid workers' camps with no electricity and poor sanitation, wages paid at less than minimum rates, up to 12 hour days with no weekly day off, no childcare so children have been on the construction sites and exposed to all the risks. There was also a lack of safety equipment, many unreported accidents with 40 people killed, and many of the workers had no access medical care or compensation.

The plan is that the migrant workers will appear to vanish once the visitors arrive for the games. Bamboo screens have been planted to hide slums. This is part of a broader programme of beautification, a thin veneer of greenery to hide the reality of India's poverty and the aftermath of heavy construction. In June 2010, it was announced that about 200,000 trees would be planted this year in the areas where tourists will be visiting for the Games. Landfill sites are being made less visible, with waste dumped on one side of site and levelled. Soil excavated from construction has been dumped over landfill sites, then thousands of trees have been planted to obscure the view and reduce the foul smell. Even the flyovers where many displaced people now huddle for shelter have been encompassed by the manic planting for an event that is more about appearance than reality. In April a programme to beautify all of the city's flyovers with flowers and ornamental plants was announced. Some of the planting programmes have not been completed, holes were dug for millions of pot plants to adorn the sites for the event, but many were left empty and filled with stagnant water. This is likely to be a contributory factor to an outbreak of dengue fever, which is spread by mosquitoes.

The Games triggered another enormous instant gardens project, in the final stage of the construction programme for the swanky new Terminal 3 at Delhi airport, which opened on 3rd July 2010. Gardens both inside and outside the terminal  hide the enormity of concrete. A Hong Kong landscaping firm was brought in for the planting programme which encompassed 922,000 trees, shrubs, cacti, other types of plants and lush green lawns. In all, 300 varieties of plants have been used. Some of the most prominent plants are imported, including palm trees from Mexico and orchids from Thailand. 800 planters were imported from Germany.

If you look at where the materials for the new terminal were sourced from, it is more symbolic of globalisation than a new India. In contrast with the delays of the Games construction, Terminal 3 is designed to handle 34 million passengers per year, doubling the airport's passenger capacity. It took just 37 months to build, even less than Beijing's new terminal for the 2008 Olympics. It was opened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who said 'A good airport would signal the arrival of a new India'. Terminal 3, along with the new runway, was described by Kiran Grandhi of Delhi Airport operator GMR as India's 'new gateway to the world'. The runway is over 2 metres thick and required 2.3 million cubic metres of earthworks and 2.5m million tonnes of aggregated filling 500 trucks per day. Some of the heavy construction equipment was imported equipment from Germany including 8 Vibratory Soil Compactors with 18 tonne capacity for building embankments and stabilizing the base soil of the runway, and 10 Electronic Sensor Pavers for laying the surface.

The new terminal is bigger than new terminals at Hyderabad, Mumbai and Bangalore airports combined, and used 600,000 cubic metres of concrete and 200,000 tonnes of reinforced steel. A lot of the materials were imported, including 110 square metres of granite from Bahrain for the floor and 100,000 square metres of curtains from China, wielding a heavy ecological footprint and not fulfilling the promise that infrastructure for the games would boost support India's economy. It would have been a bit tragic if what is believed to be the world's biggest single commercial carpet order, for such a symbolic building, was not sourced from within India, considering the country's history in carpet making stretching back at least to 500 BC. The gigantic carpet is of Indian proveneance, and was manufactured in Mulshi, in Maharashtra. It covers about 170,000 square metres, about the size of 24 football fields, and was made by UK based Brintons. 320 workers worked on the carpet for four months using 20 weaving machines. The carpet then had its own incredible journey to Delhi in 85 containers, each nearly 10 metres long. The design depicts Delhi's Connaught Place business district, as seen by GoogleEarth.

It would be a shame if the new terminal flooded, the wonderful carpet would be ruined. Part of Delhi Airport's domestic terminal flooded on 21st August 2009, and part of the roof collapsed, although, fortunately nobody was injured. This occurred during what the Met Department described as 'normal monsoon showers'.

Many of India's airports are unable to withstand normal flooding patterns, never mind the worsening floods likely with climate change. One of Mumbai Airport's runways is partially built over the Mithi River, and construction of the other runway involved diverting the river. In June 2010 the airport was forced to close for 5 hours as water logging caused flooding and disruptions in power supply. There were concerns that this occurred in moderate rain, so the airport might not be prepared for downpours in the monsoon season. Chennai Airport departure and arrival halls were inundated with water following heavy rains in 2005. Chennai's second runway is built over the Aydar River, and in an attempt to prevent future flooding it was built 2 metres over the 2005 flood level, with a wall to keep water out of airport grounds. But the water has to go somewhere, and, following a downpour in November 2008, villages sandwiched between the airport and the river were flooded.

It appears that Delhi will maange to pull of this event, and the new buildings might appear formidably strong, but are fragile in the face of nature's power. The impermeable surfaces of intensive urban development, particularly airports with vast asphalt runways and aprons and enormous concrete terminals, remove the absorption and natural buffer provided by green space and flood plains. So the flow of water is concentrated making flooding worse, although when and where it will occur becomes harder to predict.


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