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Commonwealth Games: Has India got its priorities right?

Delhi was tense before the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. Roads were blocked around the big tourist sights and armed police stopped the drivers of the yellow and green auto rickshaws from dropping their passengers outside key landmarks.  The popular Lodhi gardens, normally thronging with Sunday strollers and family picnics, were almost deserted bar a few guards and a handful of western tourists. The city waited with bated breath for the games to begin.

But later watching the opening ceremony, it became clear that Delhi was about to host an event that India would be proud of. The organizing committee had managed to put all the negative reports behind them and the opening ceremony went off without a hitch with fireworks, drumming and more than 7,000 athletes trouping into the stadium.

As an NGO worker in a country that is celebrating its position as global host, you could be seen to be a bit of a killjoy when trying to draw attention to what is going on away from the flash and ceremony of an event like the commonwealth games. But you do have to question whether India has got its priorities quite right.

On the Friday before the opening ceremony I went with one of Save the Children’s partners to the east of the city where hundreds of families had seen their homes destroyed when the Yamuna river flooded. As the roads were the only high ground, the pavement had become a ramshackle campsite. Crammed tightly together, roughly erected tents ran along both sides of the dual carriageway.  Crawling along at Delhi-traffic speed meant any passerby could stare into these families’ homes and see just how they were living. Children sat on the bare concrete by the side of the road with no possessions, no safety and nowhere to play.

And a few kilometres away on a road that would be used by commonwealth traffic the story got even worse. Families in that part of town had also moved onto a roadbridge for higher ground. But a few days ago they were reportedly forced by the police to move off the road back to the sludge of the river bed so those travelling to the games would not have to witness their destitution.

“Even if you said you would take me to stadium to watch the games, I wouldn’t go,” said Salman, (who was unsure of his age but was likely eight or nine). ‘The games have  been bad for my family. There are 12 of us and our tent is knee-deep in mud.” He used to get handouts of food from passersby, but out of sight on the river-bed nobody has come to his family’s aid for days.

Eight million people – half of Delhi’s population – live in slums and shanty towns and almost two million children die every year in India from diseases that are easy to prevent and treat. While the political will to host the games has been found, along with $6 billion to build stadiums and improve infrastructure, that same will to save children’s lives so far has not.

The budget for India’s national scheme to tackle childhood malnutrition – the Integrated Childhood Development Scheme – is only a quarter of what has been spent preparing for the commonwealth games.

Killjoy or not, it’s shameful and unjustifiable that in a country that is ecnomically booming, children like Salman are suffering the consequences. The effects of India’s growth are not reaching its poor.

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