In typical realtor-speak, it’s being advertised as “the finest address in the heart of Delhi”, and the Commonwealth Games Village is, truly, the stuff of real estate fantasies. Walk through its well-secured gates, and find yourself amid swathes of green, dotted with a swimming pool, a health club, tennis courts and, of course, 34 towers containing 1,168 flats that reek of 5-star comfort. Their decor may be minimalist, but the tone is one of overwhelming opulence.
Built in partnership between the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and developers Emaar MGF, the Village will give 8,000 international Commonwealth athletes the chance of living India’s gated community dream. But outside the gates, the voices of protest aren’t dying down; indeed, the critics are multiplying in number. For them, this plush “village” is not a dream world but a nightmare; the controversy around it a mirror of the larger public debate around the CWG itself.
|“India’s brilliant, young architects have lost out to professionals brought in by illiterate promoters. ” Raj Rewal, Architect||“There was the same last-minute panic during the 1982 Asian Games. So you had the games but no lasting value.” Mark Tully, Journalist|
|“Only areas like central Delhi will benefit from improvements such as new signage, walkways and sandstone paving.” K.T. Ravindran, DUAC||“If you spend so much, it’s bound to have benefits. Roads have been spruced up. But is sprucing the problem to address?” A.G.K. Menon, Urban Planner|
Environmentalists believe Delhi will live to regret constructing these massive buildings on the banks of the Yamuna. They predict that the village will hamper the flow of groundwater that replenishes the seasonal river, effectively choking it. Despite a July 2009 Supreme Court verdict authorising the construction of these apartments, critics remain unconvinced. “It is almost suicide, but we are going through with it,” says architect, urban planner and conservation consultant A.G.K. Menon. Even a cabinet minister confessed to Outlook, off the record: “Nobody can explain the justification for building the CWG Village on the banks of the Yamuna. Nor can I understand the logic of having the games somewhere else, and the village across a river.”
Environmental concerns apart, some critics are also saddened by the contrast between the Asian Games in 1982, for which architects were selected on the basis of democratic competitions, and the Commonwealth Games, where no time was wasted for democracy. Raj Rewal, who won the competition to design the Asian Games Village near Delhi’s Siri Fort Complex, says, “Now you have a case of architecturally illiterate promoters bringing in professionals who are far from being the world’s leading architects. India’s younger group of brilliant planners and architects have lost out as a consequence.”
Other leading architects, among them K.T. Ravindran, believe that all the much-vaunted changes that Delhi is going through amount to no more than “decking up your living room for a visitor”. Ravindran, who heads the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), says the legacy of the games will be skewed development for the capital, with only select CWG-related areas such as central Delhi benefiting “from improvements such as new signage, walkways and sandstone paving”. The DUAC had approved the expensive sandstone for Connaught Place for authenticity, since it was in the original plan, but found to its surprise that it was being used to pave sidewalks in large sections of Lutyens’ Delhi.
“Central Delhi isn’t all of Delhi; it’s got the lowest population density in the city,” says Ravindran, who is of the firm belief that had the administration used this opportunity to distribute investments more equitably, it would have addressed the issue of urban renewal in a more real and effective way. “Even pedestrianisation has happened in very select areas without consultation with bodies like the DUAC, which is statutorily empowered to provide advice to local bodies.”
The DUAC was also ignored during the transformation of the British-era Safdarjung Airport into a large parking lot for the games. Menon says that by treating the DUAC like an avoidable bottleneck, the capital was “hurting” its own institutions. The Delhi government, for its part, claims that time was of essence, and greater consultation was not an option. Chief secretary Rakesh Mehta says, “The DUAC’s approach to problem-solving is that unless everyone is on board for a particular plan, it won’t get approved. We just have to get things done.”
Several critics believe that the government and civic bodies are using urgent deadlines as an excuse to get away with shoddy implementation. Watching this rush to the finish gives journalist and broadcaster Mark Tully a strong sense of deja vu. “There was the same last-minute panic around the time of the Asian Games. Rajiv Gandhi was brought in to take matters into his hands at the eleventh hour. So you had the games, but they didn’t have any lasting value.” Tully points to Delhi’s Ring Railway, a circular rail network that was flagged off in 1982 but has since become almost defunct. “Though investments were made,” says Tully, “there was no real follow-up. I see the same hurried planning and hurried implementation now.”
The question many are asking is: Whose Delhi is it anyway? One reason why the Commonwealth Evaluation Commission chose to award the 2010 CWG to Delhi was this would-be host city’s claim that after the two-week sporting extravaganza, the CWG Village would be used as hostel accommodation for Delhi University students. That plan is quite obviously on the backburner, with Emaar MGF selling two-thirds of the apartments at prices ranging from Rs 1.85 to Rs 4.85 crore.
Urban historian Ravi Sundaram, the author of Pirate Modernity: A History of Delhi’s Rapid Urbanisation, urges Delhites to look beyond the games if they wish to find a part-silver lining. Part of a group convened to facilitate urban debates in the run-up to the CWG, he says, “If we just focus on the games, we see unmitigated disaster—the design, the management mess, the corruption—it’s too easy. What’s more interesting is all the other stuff that precedes and will surpass it: the public debate.” Thankfully, there seems to be no dearth of that.
By Shreevatsa Nevatia and Shruti Ravindran