India’s prime minister convened a crisis meeting on the Commonwealth Games Thursday, facing warnings of a mass pullout and frantic work to save the event from disaster with just 10 days to go.
Manmohan Singh summoned top ministers as more teams delayed their athletes’ departure for the Indian capital and eight countries reportedly told organisers they will withdraw if their concerns about security and hygiene are not met.
“The Commonwealth Games is the only point of discussion on the agenda,” a senior official in Singh’s office told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The head of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Michael Fennell, was expected in Delhi Thursday to seek an urgent meeting with Singh before touring the much-maligned athletes’ village on Friday.
Some 700 cleaners have been pressed into action to scrub the residential blocks, the Times of India reported, after delegations complained that they were “filthy” and “unfit for human habitation”.
Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna promised the Games would be a success, despite a shambolic buildup that has tarnished India’s hopes of showcasing its modern dynamism.
“I can assure you with all the confidence at my level that we will be able to deliver on the Commonwealth Games and it will be one of the most successful games that the Commonwealth will have undertaken,” he said.
But several world-class athletes have already pulled out of the October 3-14 event and New Zealand on Thursday joined other nations including Canada and Scotland in delaying its team’s departure.
“It’s tremendously disappointing,” New Zealand’s games chief Mike Stanley said in a statement. “The long list of outstanding issues has made it clear the village will now not be ready for New Zealand athletes to move in as planned.”
Andrew Pipe, the president of Canada’s games delegation, launched a scathing attack on the Indian organisers.
“Their indifference at times has seemed to border on the intransigent to us, and that’s just unacceptable,” he told the BBC.
Months of warnings to the organisers about security, shoddy infrastructure and the state of the village “have fallen on deaf ears”, Pipe said.
Eight countries have written a joint letter to the Indian organisers, demanding a list of conditions covering security and hygiene be met or they will refuse to compete, the BBC reported without naming the nations.
New Delhi had been expecting 7,000 athletes and officials for the multi-sport showpiece for Commonwealth countries, mostly nations and territories formerly in the British Empire.
India was hoping to show off its progress and growing economic might — the “shining India” of nine percent economic growth, high-tech software companies and new diplomatic clout on the international stage.
But a footbridge collapse this week and a shooting outside New Delhi’s main mosque have brought simmering disquiet to a head, coming after well-documented delays, political infighting and allegations of corruption.
A top Indian builders’ union said the rush to finish venues in time — seven years after the country was awarded the Games — had compromised safety and quality.
India’s leading business lobby group also voiced fears of the damage to the country’s image abroad.
“It is a sad state of affairs indeed and, psychologically, puts a question mark against India’s capacity to deliver,” said the general secretary the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Amit Mitra.
Australia and New Zealand’s swimming teams said they were mulling an alternative meet if the Games were called off.
But Singapore laughed off suggestions that it might step in as a last-minute replacement venue, after successfully hosting the inaugural Youth Olympics last month.
About 50 athletes were scheduled to arrive Thursday evening, including members of the Malaysian contingent, Delhi police told AFP, with a further 300 expected to touch down on Sunday.
The first 22 competitors from England, including the lawn bowls and hockey teams, were due to fly to Delhi on schedule on Thursday night, the country’s federation confirmed.
But the sprawling athletes’ village, near Delhi’s main river, was described by Fennell on Tuesday as “seriously compromised”, while his deputy Mike Hooper detailed a catalogue of complaints from participating nations.
Builders’ rubble was still strewn in the residential towers, some shower doors were put on backwards, toilets were blocked or leaking and there were various problems with the electrics.