Let The Games Begin

by Samir Goswami

In 2008, the construction site was just a dusty field swarming with hundreds of men, many in tattered clothing and shorts, wearing boots and flimsy hard hats. Hundreds of thousands of visitors would one day go through the New Delhi airport they were rebuilding to attend the 2010 Commonwealth Games, hosted by India for the first time in a sweeping attempt to mold its 17-million-resident capital into a first-rate destination for the sporting fans of the world. For the next two years, the city would rumble with migrants and machines erecting stadiums, metro lines, hotels, and bridges, some of which were doomed to collapse before even being used. But this summer night, a Bobcat was the only piece of heavy machinery on the entire site.

Since the Indian government was spending millions on infrastructure improvements in anticipation of the CWG, my friend had decided to dabble in the construction business. In that typically adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit characteristic of many Delhi-ites, he bought himself a sub-contract to build an exterior wall for one of the new terminals at Indira Gandhi International Airport.

The prevailing wage for an unskilled laborer was 120 Indian Rupees per day ($2.60), and skilled workers earned 40 Rupees (90 cents) more. My friend, who provided about twenty-five of the hundreds of laborers for the section of the wall that he was sub-contracted to build, made a 20 percent profit over his costs. Later, I met the general contractor and asked, if the laborers were offered a better wage and the contractors increased safety precautions—would that not reduce both the financial and human cost of completing the project?

He replied, “Why should I invest in a Bobcat, and pay to train someone to run it, when I can just hire thirty men for half that cost to dig a hole?”

Digging a Hole

Two years later, Delhi finds itself in a hole of its own digging, the depth of which no one is yet quite sure of. From October 3 – 14 New Delhi is hosting the 19th Commonwealth Games, held every four years. Since 1930 the Games have been open to athletes from countries once under the colonial rule of Great Britain. According to the Commonwealth Federation (CGF), “Underlying every decision made by the CGF are three core values: HUMANITY – EQUALITY – DESTINY. These values help to inspire and unite millions of people and symbolize the broad mandate of the CGF within the Commonwealth.”

The 2010 Games, however, have reflected anything but these principles. Reports of exorbitant cost overruns, shoddy construction work, the use of child labor, and the documented increase in sex trafficking to meet the demand for commercial sex have shrouded the Games in controversy. Sadly, when British Olympian Tom Daley was asked by ITN News about the allegations of child labor to build some of the facilities in India in which he will be competing, he replied, “I just have to focus on my performance, because that is the only thing I can do. I can’t sort out what else is happening in India.”

But in a country where a booming economy has not had a significant impact on reducing exploitation and alleviating poverty–a country that is hosting the Commonwealth Games in the first place to showcase itself as a “world class” nation–what better issue is there to “sort out”?

“The sex industry is out-organizing the Games’ planners!”

Human trafficking, the fundamental devaluing of a human being as a good, is not new in India. Unlike under British colonialism where a foreign government enslaved our grandparents, 90 percent of trafficking in India is internal. We traffic our own. According to the extensive 2010 Trafficking In Persons report, published by the U.S. State Department, India’s efforts to prevent exploitation and provide services to victims are dismal. And it’s no wonder: Along with the corruption and extreme poverty that make trafficking rampant is the ongoing mass migration of disenfranchised rural workers to urban centers, crippling the ability of governments and organizations to identify victims of actual slavery.

Building a road in the President’s Estate Quarters as Delhi rushes to finish work for the Commonwealth Games.
(photo by Carol Mitchell)

Migration of poor workers into Delhi in search of job opportunities related to the Games exacerbates this already increasing movement of rural Indians to wealthy cities to escape the dearth of options and social infrastructure in their poorer home states. Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an Indian organization working to end sex trafficking and the exploitation of women, led a campaign to pressure the Indian government to address the issue of women who have migrated to Delhi from depressed areas of India to help construct the new, urban, world-class dreamscape.

A specific CWG-related concern of Apne Aap is the lack of planning to accommodate these female migrants. The organization has pressured the Indian government to invest in housing to ensure safety from sexual exploitation that is a common experience of migrant women, and provide for transportation back to their home states upon completion of their work for the Games.

The organization’s director, Ruchira Gupta, is concerned about the lack of options faced by these “hundreds of thousands of migrant young women who have come to Delhi to build the new New Delhi,which is the stadiums, the roads, [and] the houses where the people for the CWG will be living.”

A road in Delhi where laborers build drainage. Women do a lot of the hauling in construction work. There are not enough mobile creches so women bring their children to the work site. Several media outlets have documented the apparent utilization of these children to help speed construction.
(photo by Carol Mitchell)

Apne Aap has also documented the increased trafficking of women into Delhi from Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and other poor areas to satisfy a demand for prostitution from an influx of tens of thousands of foreign men. According to Gupta, “There are tourists coming from all over the world and from inside of India to Delhi for the Commonwealth Games, and based on experience with other sporting events around the world such as the [2010 FIFA] World Cup in South Africa, the sex industry has anticipated a rise in need for prostituted sex. So they have organized very fast to cater to what they anticipate will be a huge demand… in fact they have organized much faster than the organizers of the games!”

Apne Aap alleges that brothel owners anticipate such a high demand for prostitution that they are injecting young girls with Oxytocin, a hormone that hastens puberty and premature physical development, to cater to the many male CWG visitors. Many of these young women are also being taught certain English words to facilitate basic conversations with these buyers of sex.

Unacceptably, according to Gupta, the predictability of these concerns is falling on deaf ears.

Missed Opportunities

A government’s priorities are reflected in its budgets, and we, the citizens, are responsible for electing and re-electing those who set these priorities. The Indian government has already spent 114 times more on the construction of the Games’ facilities than initially projected. Total expenditure has thus far dwarfed investments into crucial social programs such as health and family welfare, the government’s flagship “Education for All” initiative, and schemes to bolster rural employment opportunities that would discourage migration into Delhi. Furthermore, the promises that the Games would actually generate revenue are being debunked in the Indian press. Of the $2.5 billion spent on the Games so far, only $75 million has been recouped from much-hyped corporate sponsorships, merchandise and ticket sales.

Plans for the Commonwealth Games Village luxury apartments, built to house athletes, media, and other visitors during the 10-day festivities. The units will be sold, some by the Delhi Developmental Authority, to new residents after the Games.

These fiscal policies are not the actions of a state that prioritizes social welfare in any meaningful way. As of this writing, calls by Indian media pundits to call off the Games, as well as decisions by acclaimed athletes to skip the trip to Delhi, are dominating headlines. The re-interpretation of the Games’ acronym, CWG, as Conmen’s Wealth Gains is seen frequently as the status updates of Delhi’s Facebook users. The government’s continued response is to dismiss such allegations–further evidence that the state is willfully ignoring the values of equality and humanity that the event is supposed to engender.

I am an Indian citizen living in Chicago. My parents live in New Delhi. I visit India every two years, and still consider New Delhi as my hometown. I achieved U.S. Permanent Residency exactly one year ago, but I have no intention to give up my Indian passport to pursue U.S. Citizenship when I become eligible for it in four years for one simple reason: Pride.

Many of us ex-patriots living abroad are proud of the economic progress our country has made and the cultural acceptance Indians have achieved abroad. The latest Bollywood movies are now routinely shown in major U.S. theatres and many of the latest sit-coms now feature Indian characters, however stereotypical. U.S. corporations are increasingly doing business in India and with Indian companies, and investors are looking at the country’s growth and educated workforce as a major opportunity for their own progress. According to most economic and cultural indicators, in a very short period of time since our independence from Great Britain in 1947, we’ve done well.

With a history of institutionalized inequality that pre-dates the establishment of the British Raj in India in 1858, in 1950 we adopted one of the world’s most progressive constitutions when we became a self-governing democracy. Our constitution was supposed to eliminate a rigid and hierarchical caste system that Mahatma Gandhi fought tirelessly against. Laws, enacted through democratic processes, were created to bolster human rights and guarantee equality of opportunity to those who had been oppressed on the bases of caste, economic condition, or gender.

A rickshaw driver pedals a couple past sprawling construction of Delhi’s expanded metro system.
(photo by Bruce Thomson)

The 2010 Commonwealth Games were intended to catapult my country into the status of a “world class” nation based upon real progress. It was an opportunity to showcase India’s evolution as the world’s largest democracy whose recent exponential economic growth has benefited all. Instead, the international spotlight is focusing its bright beam on the failure of the illusion of progress that India’s ruling class has unsuccessfully tried to portray to the world.

Instead of trying to rectify this failure in a meaningful way, organizers and elected officials are now attempting to shamelessly save face by rejecting and ignoring the mountains of evidence of mishandling that plague the Games.

How the other half lives: Old (North) Delhi.
(Photo by Mani Babbar)

The finger-pointing will undoubtedly continue and reigning officials might lose the next election. But that is not enough. If New Delhi wants to establish itself as a “world class” city, then we must hold it and ourselves to a higher standard. It is up to all of us–Indian citizens, foreign visitors, audience members, Commonwealth athletes and members of the Commonwealth Federation. We must set and enforce a basic set of moral standards grounded in human rights that any city that aims to host the world’s next global sporting event should adhere to.

In a few months I will return to Delhi to visit my parents. I will probably go through the terminal that now stands on the field swarming with migrant laborers that I visited in 2008. I’m sure the airport will seem as modern and spectacular as the Indian government claims it to be, and New Delhi will be as vibrant and bustling as ever with the dream of collective prosperity. When I land at the airport, however, I will know that I am walking through a deep, deceptive hole into a city relentlessly hawking what has become as much a commodity as the hands that built it–illusion.


Samir Goswami, a Chicago-based writer from India, wrote this article for Human Goods. Samir spent the last fifteen years working towards policy reform for the issues of homelessness and housing, workforce development, human rights, violence against women and sex trafficking, specifically working with survivors to have a direct say in their governance. His work has been recognized by Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, the Chicago Community Trust, and the Chicago Foundation for Women, which honored him with the 2010 Impact Award. He is currently on a quest for authentic advocacy.

Header images by Seaview99, Esthr, and Eileen Delhi

Protest photo by Joe Athialy

For more on the intersection of trafficking, human rights, and major sporting events, check out Human Goods contributor Ben Alsdurf’s report on South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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  1. Fantastic commentary and insight, Samir. Thank you for keeping the focus on this. India seems like a remarkable juxtaposition of hope and continuing despair. I hope it continues to move forward.

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