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Commwealth Games woes could prompt reform in India

Posted: Thursday, October 14, 2010

TOKYO - In our technology-driven world, no metric is rawer than that of human bodily functions.

Sadly for India, it's one that keeps cropping up. Toilet shortages leave too many of India's 1.2 billion people relieving themselves outside. Illness, lost productivity and other consequences of fouled water and inadequate sewage treatment are literally crimping gross domestic product.

Toilets have also played a role in the Commonwealth Games, which end Thursday. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanted the event to "signal to the world that India is rapidly marching ahead with confidence." The media focused instead on filthy bathrooms in the athletes' village and 100-roll packs of toilet paper for $80.

We're talking about a nation in which 828 million people live on less than $2 a day. An Indian making that could buy two rolls of Commonwealth Games toilet paper with a day's wages. The mess shines a bright spotlight on the shortcomings that hold back a $1.3 trillion economy.

Yet all this bad press might be exactly what India needs. It could generate enough shame to catalyze officials in New Delhi to get serious about fixing the economy. It also may just be the shove in the direction of private-sector leadership that India so clearly lacks.

Shoddy construction, excessive work delays, claims of tainted swimming-pool water that some athletes say caused "Delhi belly" and a dengue-fever outbreak are products of the forces squandering the benefits of India's 8.8 percent growth. Smart and well-intentioned as he is, Singh has made little progress since 2004. Is that about to change?

The tale of New Delhi's new airport terminal, run by a company called GMR Infrastructure Ltd., shows not only why it must change, but how it can. It was finished on schedule in March. Now contrast that with government-built stadiums such as New Delhi's weightlifting hall. It was among 17 arenas that also were supposed to be finished by March.

Worse than running behind schedule, the roof at the weightlifting leaked and required frantic rebuilding efforts before the games. That didn't fit with the smooth opening of the airport terminal, which began handling flights on July 28.

Just as with India's battle with poverty, the private sector is outshining the public one. Look at technology, where homegrown companies put India firmly on the global business map. The industry blossomed partly because it developed around India's political system as opposed to within it. In the beginning, there was no overbearing government ministry stifling its growth. Microcredit lenders also have done far more to help the poor than the government.

India needs more of this dynamic, and now, because politicians aren't up to the task. Few examples prove the point better than the Commonwealth Games.

India has seen several false big-change moments. One came in May 2004, when voters tossed Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee out of office. Another came in May 2009, when Singh was re-elected with a solid mandate to retool the economy.

The "Commonfilth Games," as the Daily Mirror dubbed them, could be the real turning point. Ignoring such a cringe-inducing spectacle is impossible for Singh, his nation's people and the high-profile entrepreneurs who congregate at World Economic Forum confabs in Davos, Switzerland.

India has much potential, and its economy may even outpace China's in the years ahead. Yet India desperately needs to clear the layers of dysfunction clogging progress. Embarrassment over toilets might just be the catalyst.

• Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist.



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