23 Sept 2010

UnCommon Wealth Games: Why the West loves to put India down

The problems dogging the Commonwealth Games in India have been quickly seized upon by Western commentators and athletes as an opportunity to put India back in its place. It seems that when it comes to the West's anxiety about the Rising East, the latter can't do anything right. China was criticised for the Beijing Olympic Games being elaborate and excessive, and now India is getting grief for its lack of proper preparation. The collapse of the pedestrian bridge that highlighted those problems is a tragedy, but it's astounding how this event was then used cynically to mount a vitriolic campaign against India.

The 'awful squalor' in the athletes' village, as the Daily Mail helpfully described the conditions, has quickly come to the fore as evidence for the lack of proper preparations. For all we know, those pictures could be of one apartment, but I don't personally understand the reason for this outrage. Western governments and NGOs have been warning India of the dangers of development for years now, on the hypocritical pretext of 'not repeating our mistakes.' Mistakes like having modern infrastructure systems and ambitious housing schemes. In a sense, the state of the athletes' village reflects the expectations that the West likes India to have.

Furthermore, Indian slums have been made into a fetish and icons of poverty porn. They are seen as 'authentic' places where thriving communities can exist despite the poverty and lack of proper conditions. Why would Western athletes turn their noses up at the prospect of staying in such conditions for a few days? This is the image the West likes to portray of India and it's only fair that it should be served back to the West. Gap year students normally pay money and travel for long distances to stay in such conditions, taking pictures and writing about their experiences. The athletes shouldn't turn down the opportunity.

The irony in all of this is the 'commonwealth' bit. The situation is pretty much a product of the fact that the wealth is un-common. India is on its way to rectifying this, but it will take a long time and huge amount of effort to arrive at Western standards of wealth. Rather than cheering India for this effort, we've taken to trying to dissuade it from having such ambitions. It's only fair that we should be offered accommodation that matches to our expectations of India. The West's cynical attitude in seizing on this opportunity to put India back in its place is truly shocking.

The athletes could do with some Spartan spirit and put up with some discomfort. After the games, I suggest all aid agencies, NGOs and government personnel suggesting that India scale down its ambitions should be given a compulsory two-week holiday in the athletes' village as well. Let them experience what it's like.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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