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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 39, September 18, 2010

Winter Games Scandal

Monday 20 September 2010, by Harish Chandola

The South Asian Winter Games, which were to be held in Auli in Uttarakhand in 2008, have not been held due to lack of preparations and irregularities. However, about Rs 200 crores (Rs 110 crores allotted by the Union Government), have already been spent on the preparations, which, three years later, are still incomplete. The Games are now scheduled to be held this winter, in December, which also seems unlikely, in view of the conditions on the ground.

It is not only the Commonwealth Games in Delhi that are in trouble, but it appears whatever Games India tries to organise get into problems due to the incompetence of the organisers.

India wanted to hold the Winter Games for all South Asian countries because participation in such Games, held regularly by European and American countries, is too expensive.

The Winter Games preparations had started in the summer of 2008 upon receipt of funds from the Ministry of Sports of the Government of India. These included laying of a 1100-metre long and 40-metre wide ski-slope, from the forest at the top of a mountain in Auli, building of a lake to make artificial snow from its water, rebuilding of accommodation and facilities for athletes coming from abroad and constructing a ski-lift to take skiers up to the top of the slope. Contracts for these works were given, including to foreign firms, which after about a year claimed they had completed their work, collected their money and went away.

To lay an international standard ski-slope an Austrian expert was hired and the contract for constructing the slope was given to a Kashmir company called Space Age. The company removed the high-altitude grass that grew on the slope, exposing the layer of soil underneath. Such high Alpine slopes (Auli is at 10,000 feet) are considered highly environ-mentally sensitive and it is forbidden to interfere with them in Europe and other countries as well. Here if one digs and removes even a little bit of grass cover, that wound starts spreading and it becomes very difficult to contain the erosion.

However, after the grass cover was removed and the soil layer underneath exposed in the summer of 2008, rains started and began washing the soil below in torrents right down to villages and Joshimath town, 15 kilometres below. Water and soil filled homes of the Joshimath town people and the municipality had to employ workers to clean it from rooms.

With soil washed down, the ski-slope was left with ditches and rifts, some 10 feet deep.

For creating a lake to make artificial snow, water was brought through pipes from some 10 kilometres up the mountain. The contract for putting up a snow-making machine and laying pipes along the slope was given to an Italian company called Snow Star. Last winter the machine was tested to see if it made snow and managed to spread it along the slope. It was supposed to do so when the temperature in Auli was two degrees above zero. The Auli temperature at that time was lower than that. But the machine failed to make snow. Its pipes spewed some white stuff up in the air but there was no snow on the ground, only water!

Some years ago a large and expensive hotel had come up on the ski-slope. Attempts to remove it to keep the slope clear, failed and it still stands in its middle. It was built by an entrepreneur who bought the land from a member of a Scheduled Tribe. It is illegal for a person of a higher caste to buy Scheduled Tribe land. The Uttarakhand High Court has given a judgment declaring the land purchase illegal. The owner is reported to have gone to the Supreme Court in appeal.

The ski-lift was to be built by a French firm called Pomagaski. But work on it has yet to start.

The ski-slope is in ruins, a hotel standing in its midst, the snow-gun not working and the ski-lift is not in existence. Work on all these, except the ski-lift, has been resumed this summer, but it will be impossible to complete it by winter, the Games season. A Defence Ministry high altitude agriculture establishment in Auli has been given the task of growing grass that is to be laid on the slope to stabilise it, and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police’s Winter Warfare School in Auli has been asked to lay it. Village women’s voluntary bodies, called Mahila Mangal Dal, have been drafted to do the grass laying work. It has to be seen if the new grass being planted will hold the ski-slope. The artificial snow making company has been asked to come and make its machine produce snow. The many deep cracks and ditches in the ski-slope have yet to be filled and a ski-lift installed.

MEANWHILE the organisation in charge of holding the Games, the Winter Games Federation of India, which has some 22 members, including the governments at the Centre and in Kashmir, Himachal and Uttarakhand States, the Army, Air Force and the Navy and other government bodies, held a meeting in Delhi recently, at which its President, S.S. Pangti, a retired IAS officer, who had completed his four-year term, was changed, and Brigadier Patwal (a retired Army officer) made its new President. Brigadier Patwal has no experience of organising or conducting Games. His qualification for the job, it was said, was that he knew some skiing. The Federation’s Secretary and Treasurer were also changed, with Roshan Lal, a businessman from Himachal Pradesh, becoming the Secretary and Colonel J.S. Dhillon the Treasurer.

It is not clear which countries will take part in the Games. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives had agreed to participate, but in view of floods and fighting in Pakistan and the war in Afghanistan it is not certain that their teams will come. Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka never get snow and have no interest in Winter Games.

The question is: how have the Rs 200 crores allotted by the Union and Uttarakhand governments for the Games been spent? What was the procedure for awarding contracts to companies to prepare for the Games and making payments to them before the work was completed and tested?

Though the money involved here is nowhere near what is being spent on the Commonwealth Games, the scandal over its utilisation may be bigger.

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