India well off the pace for its showpiece Games

Unfinished projects and stifling bureaucracy tarnish the image Delhi wants to project at the 2010 Commonwealth spectacular
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At the Karni Singh shooting range on the outskirts of Delhi, a weary-looking Santosh Kumar was putting on a brave face. "In our assessment, 68 per cent is finished," said the executive engineer, sitting in his office on a building site where up to 1,400 men were busily labouring. "Why not?" he said, when asked if the work would be completed on time.

Mr Kumar may have believed what he said, but there are those who do not. A year away from the start of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, serious doubts have been raised about India's ability to complete the preparations for a sporting event to which the country has attached enormous prestige and importance. Last week, the president of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), Mike Fennell, requested a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to try to salvage the Games, saying that assurances from the organising committee were no longer sufficient. "The CGF is extremely worried about the organising committee's ability to deliver the games to any comparable standard to that of the last two editions of the Games in Manchester and Melbourne," he warned in a letter.

Mr Fennell's concerns came after an earlier report suggested 13 of the 19 venues were behind schedule. There are other reports that say plans to build thousands of hotel rooms and other projects will not be completed on time when the Games are held in the first week of October next year. The shooting event is scheduled for February, putting extra pressure on those struggling to complete the ranges on time.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance that India attaches to the Games as a opportunity to show off to the world a proud nation with aspirations to become a global power. More than £3bn is being spent on the two-week event and India, which has not hosted a major sporting event since the 1982 Asian Games, is prepared to go to great lengths to fine-tune an image of the country that officials wish to project. An athletes' village is being built on a protected riverbank; rickshaw drivers known for their rudeness are having lessons in good manners and bamboo walls are going up around the city's slums, lest visitors might remember the country has 800 million poor people.

Yet critics say that in this drive to show off a shining India, short cuts are being taken. Human rights groups claim that the armies of labourers constructing the sites are poorly paid, have little training and are often hurt or even killed. There are also those who say the effort to portray a new India is being held back by the worst traits of the old – stifling bureaucracy, officials who are politicians rather than administrators and a refusal to accept help and advice from overseas.

Games officials last week said they accepted Mr Fennell's comments as "a wake-up call". "We're all working as a team to deliver a great Games," said Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the committee. "We respect Mr Fennell's views but we want to reassure people that we will stage a great Games and it will be held on time."

But only days after Mr Kalmadi made his pledge, it was revealed that India had walked away from its promise to host a World Cup shooting event weeks after the Commonwealth Games shooting events. India officially said a new ruling had meant the event would not help qualify shooters for the 2012 Olympics. But a report in the Hindustan Times said the real reason was that the shooting ranges would not be finished in time. The paper quoted the National Rifle Association of India's secretary general, Baljeet Singh Sethi, as saying: "We've saved the country a much bigger embarrassment .... We couldn't take the chance."