Bridge collapse adds to India's Commonwealth Games woe

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A footbridge being built for the Commonwealth Games in India collapsed on Tuesday, injuring 27 people and highlighting the raft of problems that have so far blighted the event, meant to showcase an emerging global power.

Preparations for October’s $6 billion (3 billion pounds) Commonwealth Games, intended to be the coming-out party for India that the Olympics were for China, are so far behind schedule that the event risks becoming a farce.

The shooting of two foreign visitors by suspected militants in Delhi on Sunday has combined with a dengue fever epidemic, heavy monsoon rains, construction delays, graft scandals and traffic chaos to give the Games that sinking feeling.

Police said the collapsed bridge was just outside the main stadium, a reminder of India’s sometimes-lax building standards.

Commonwealth Games Federation president Michael Fennell said on Tuesday the two-week event, starting October 3, was seriously compromised by conditions at the Games village that have “shocked the majority.”

Canada’s Games team said it might delay the arrival of some of its athletes if adequate accommodation was not available.

Commonwealth Games Canada president Andrew Pipe accused the organisers of “indifference that borders on the intransigent.”

“This would have been an opportunity for India to shine,” he said. “Instead I think it risks considerable national embarrassment unless some of these deficiencies can be addressed.”

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World discus champion Dani Samuels of Australia pulled out of the Games because of security and health concerns, as did England’s world triple jump champion Phillips Idowu.

“Sorry people, but I have children to think about. My safety is more important to them than a medal,” Idowu wrote on his Twitter feed.

Nevertheless, Canada, New Zealand and Australia said they remained committed to sending teams.

Jamaica played down the problems.

“We have gone to Games before, not only in Third World countries, where weeks before the event people were concerned about the state of readiness and when the Games began everything was in place,” said Jamaica Amateur Athletic Association vice president Warren Blake.

Indian officials remained upbeat. “I am as confident and as cool as ever about our organizing. These are all minor hiccups,” Urban Development Minister S. Jaipal Reddy told reporters.

The dismal preparations have, for many, underscored the out-of-touch, slow-paced leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress government, raising questions about how a graft-ridden, inefficient state can hope to compete with China.

“It’s just one of so many goof-ups,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a political economist.

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“This will not do the government any good. When you have a big bash and benefits are minimal, it sharpens and widens the inequalities in India. People notice.”

Tales of billions of wasted dollars will not help. Perceptions of India’s entrepreneurial prowess may also slip if roofs leak and journalists wonder where the Wi-Fi is.

“Fingers crossed, India may pull off a miracle,” said Boria Majumdar, a sports historian who has written the book ‘Sellotape Legacy: Delhi and the Commonwealth Games’.

“But it will have to be a miracle. No doubt about that.”

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Construction delays mean venues have not been locked down securely by police until two weeks before the Games.

Some four or five accommodation towers at the village lack facilities such as fitted toilets and plumbing. Rubble, masonry and bricks litter unfinished gardens.

A crude cement slope appears to be an unplanned fix for disabled athletes requiring access to one apartment block.

The athletes’ training centre is still to be fitted out. The water in the training and recreational swimming pools is dirty, with insect larvae breeding on the surface.

“They have had some delegations staying there and they have been reporting constantly about the filth in the village,” Games Federation president Fennell told CNN-IBN TV.

Organisers say there is no question of the Games being put off, but the nightmare is that one delegation exits and others follow. And the problems are not receding.

There are worries that puddles in building sites harbour mosquitoes that could spread dengue fever, which has put hundreds of Delhi residents in hospital.

Costs are running at 17 times the original estimates, and the government’s anti-corruption watchdog has identified 16 projects with suspect financing.

The insistence on holding the Games in October has caused some athletes to pull out due to conflicts with Olympic qualifiers. There is a high chance of rain at the opening ceremony.

Triple Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt of Jamaica is the highest profile athlete to decide to skip the event.

But many venues, including the main Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, have been praised as world-class.

And officials note that other events such as the 2004 Athens Olympics were dogged by problems, but turned out fine.

Additional reporting by Amlan Chakraborty and Henry Foy; Editing by Kevin Liffey