Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Crucial last stage in Games security

India is entering the final and most crucial stage of its security preparations to protect the Commonwealth Games.

National pride, the Games' 80-year history and billions in business investment between India and Australia hang on a successful outcome before and during the October 3-14 sporting showpiece.

Concerns about India's ability to prevent an attack were heightened when two Taiwanese nationals were shot outside a popular New Delhi tourist attraction two weeks out from the opening ceremony.

Motorbike attackers opened fire with a sub-machine gun on a tourist bus at a mosque, with the Indian Mujahideen reportedly taking credit for the attack.

Around 100,000 Delhi police, paramilitary forces and specialised commandos will form a blanket over the sporting venues and athletes village but some other parts of the city will remain vulnerable.

Late construction and last-minute fixes to the 17 sporting venues and village have inevitably impacted the security lockdown plans.

Their readiness is crucial to the protection of Australia's largest away Games team and those of the 70 other national teams attending.

And this all amidst the backdrop of allegations of corruption and dodgy building practices and prolonged monsoon rains that brought an outbreak of dengue fever.

Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), tops a litany of terrorist organisations that Indian officials consider a potential threat to the Games.

At least 173 people were killed when members of LeT stormed a series of hotels and other nearby premises in Mumbai on November 26, 2008.

Other security concerns include social unrest, separatist threats and rebel attacks that occur frequently but at a rate that is easily absorbed by a country of one billion-plus people.

India's top security official, Home Secretary G.K. Pillai, has previously commented on a lack of threats to the Games in the past few months.

"It's been a little unusual that we haven't picked up much chatter," Pillai told AAP.

"Yes, if you want to put it in one sense, it's too quiet. But it doesn't mean we are letting down our guard at all."

D.R. Kaarthikeyan, a former director of his country's Central Bureau Investigation is one of many security experts advising Games officials.

Indian security forces thwart potential attacks on a regular basis, Kaarthikeyan has said, but they are not usually publicised.

"When something (an attack) succeeds, you can see 99 have been prevented," he said.

"So many are being rounded up, so many have been detected," Kaarthikeyan said.

Games security operations will also include helicopter-borne snipers and four levels of security around the sporting venues, athletes village and other potential targets.

International policy expert Rory Medcalf from the Lowy Institute says terrorists do have an interest in the Games but Indian security forces will likely prevent any major attack on the venues or the athlete's village.

"You could well have terrorists who opportunistically attempt at least a symbolic attack on some other target either in Delhi or in another part of India," Medcalf said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) and Trade has issued "high degree of caution" warnings to Australians considering travel in Delhi and greater India.

At least 14 major terrorist attacks on New Delhi markets, train stations and other public places have occurred since 2000 and resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries, DFAT says.

DFAT had not altered its travel warning to India for months but the shooting and recent building failures have resulted in updates.

Peter Varghese, Australia's high commissioner to India, concurs with Indian authorities that no credible terrorist threat on the Games currently exists.

"From what we've seen of the plans and preparations for security, they are very thorough," Varghese said.

"At this stage I don't think there's any reason to expect that we would be facing anything like a contingency which would require government-provided evacuation."

International risk consultant Justin Bowden observed late or missing technology during a security reconnaissance trip he conducted in New Delhi in August.

Bowden's team met with ex-Indian intelligence, security managers at key hotels, former deputy commissioners of Delhi's police force and government officials.

"The CCTV is still being rolled out at many events," Bowden said then.

Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) chief executive Mike Hooper has fought a long struggle with the Organising Committee to the Games over venues.

He demanded occupancy certificates to confirm the sporting venues and athletes' village were safe to occupy.

A July report from the Indian government's Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) stated some of the venues may have included substandard work that was approved with forged test results.

Indian officials missed two deadlines in August to refute the claims and provide the occupancy certificates but eventually delivered them to the CGF in early September.

Following the footbridge collapse which injured more than 20 people on September 21, Hooper said he had no choice but to accept the documentation as bona fide proof that the venues are safe to occupy.

"We have to accept that they've done their job," he said.

Hooper is satisfied with a final security report he received in September from the CGF's consultant Intelligent Risks that states India is implementing all necessary plans and precautions.

"It's not pretending there's more work to do because there is and the Games haven't started yet," Hooper said.

"You can have the best planning in the world but it comes down to actually what happens on the ground at the time, and ensuring that appropriate security is in place to keep it safe and secure."

No security concerns for Dwyer

Australian hockey player Jamie Dwyer says he had no hesitation deciding to compete at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

Dwyer says the threat of a terrorist attack has not dissuaded the team from its bid for a Commonwealth gold medal.

He says the experience of playing in India earlier this year helped him make the decision.

"There's always concerns, I guess about security, whether that's in Delhi or London but wherever it is I'm going to go," he said.

"I've been over to India a fair bit and we were fortunate enough to be there in March this year so we got used to the conditions and we all went there and found it very safe."

Dwyer says the threat of a terrorist attack is worrying but it is possible in any country.

"We did a lot of talking before the World Cup in March because we had a few threats to our team and the England team as well, but this time we'll talk a little bit about it but I think everyone's feeling pretty fine," he said.

"Because we were over there in March and everything ran so smoothly, I think everyone's got expectations that it'll go smoothly again."

Delhi Games teeter on 'knife's edge'

British team officials have warned the Commonwealth Games are on a "knife edge" over complaints of filthy housing and growing structural and security fears.
There is growing concern among athletes and team officials about the ability of the city to host the Games, after a series of incidents including a bridge collapse and a shooting attack on a busload of tourists.

Now officials from England, Scotland and Wales say they could withdraw their athletes if their concerns are not met within the next two days.

"I think the next 24 to 48 hours is the critical time which will tell us whether the village, which is where the main problem is now, has got enough accommodation for everybody to come into it," Commonwealth Games England chairman Andrew Foster said.

"It's a situation that hangs on a knife-edge.

"The things that could change it are guarantees about the safety of the stadia and a significant improvement in the quality of the village accommodation."

Adding to the headache for organisers, this morning there were reports that an overflow of sewage had swamped homes in the north of the Indian capital.

The Times of India reported that toilets overflowed into homes and sewage as much as four to five feet deep had accumulated on some streets because of flooding.

But Indian foreign minister SM Krishna says despite the setbacks, the Games are going ahead.

"Once the games are over, I'm sure that India will vindicate itself, and then perhaps Commonwealth countries will feel proud that India was able to deliver on the games, even against very heavy odds," he said.

With the Games due to start in 10 days' time, Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive Mike Hooper is awaiting a response from the Indian government on the state of the athletes village.

Mr Hooper says the Federation has written, outlining very serious concerns about hygiene at the accommodation units, which he says must be addressed before the athletes arrive.

Mr Hooper dismissed suggestions the complaints were politically motivated or based on cultural insensitivity.

"This is not a conspiracy against anybody, this is just a statement of fact that the cleanliness is just nowhere near up to standard," he said.

"I described it yesterday as 'filthy' in many parts of the village and it's not just the CGA saying that, it's the CGAs that are there.

"You've heard comments yourself from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Wales, Scotland, you know, they're all part of the advance groups that are here, and they're not happy and quite rightly so."

But India's high commissioner to Australia, Sujpa Singh, has defended her government's preparations for the Games.

Ms Singh says delays in construction are largely the result of unprecedented heavy rains in New Delhi and that the Government is working round the clock to complete venues.

She says that despite the delays, venues will be ready and the Games will go ahead.

"I know that the Games are going to go on," she said.

"We have too much invested in this and whatever needs to be done will be done."

Athletes insulated

Meanwhile, Australian athletes will be virtually insulated from the general population in India and advised not to travel anywhere except to and from their accommodation and the Games venues.

Speaking in New Delhi overnight, Australian Commonwealth Games Association (ACGA) head Perry Crosswhite said there would be some flexibility, but warned that security had to be tight.

Mr Crosswhite said athletes could stay on after the competition if they wanted to experience India, but equally, if they felt unsafe, they would be assisted to leave.

"[Security is] going to be tight. It has to be," he said.

"We're really at this point looking at only certain Games venues and potentially some other protected spots, but I think [we are] erring on the side of conservatism."

The Australian team has already had discus world champion Dani Samuels withdraw over security and health fears.

"This is the hardest decision of my life and not one I took lightly," the bronze medallist from the 2006 Melbourne Games said in a statement on Tuesday.

But Victorian archer Dawn Nelson says she has spent years training to win selection for the Commonwealth Games and that she will be heading to New Dehli to compete.

"The consensus of the whole team is that we are definitely going," she said.

"It seems to be more of a media hype. For a lot of people it is their first Games, as it is mine, and yes, everybody has worked very hard to get here."

Comm Games chief arrives in Delhi

Teams considering pulling out of the Commonwealth Games may get a clearer picture on Thursday as Federation president Mike Fennell seeks a crisis meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Fennell has brought forward his arrival in the Games city to Thursday following a spate of issues threatening the Games due to start in just 10 days.

Team officials have expressed alarm at the lack of readiness and poor hygiene in sections of the athletes' village.

And the collapses of a Games pedestrian bridge and a Games venue ceiling this week have reignited concerns about building safety standards.

Guernsey and Jersey are two national teams which on Wednesday indicated they could possibly withdraw from the Games while England's Games chief said the Games were hanging on a knife edge and the Scotland team delayed its departure to give more time for their village accommodation to be made habitable.

Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) chief executive Mike Hooper labelled parts of the village as "filthy" and said the Organising Committee (OC) was working to rectify the problems.

But Fennell's arrival and request to meet directly with PM Singh shows the CGF is not satisfied with the progress.

"He's asked for a meeting with the prime minister when he gets here to go over things," Hooper told AAP.

"I think his presence here will really re-emphasise how serious the problem is with the cleanliness of the Games' village and the standard of the accommodation.

Australian Commonwealth Games Association chief executive Perry Crosswhite reaffirmed Australia's commitment to competing at the Games on Wednesday night.

Advice on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's website has been update to note there have been reports about construction "deficiencies" in some Games projects.

"Australians should be aware that building standards in India may not be comparable to those in Australia," it reads.

Sport Minister Mark Arbib said on Thursday that Australian High Commissioner to India Peter Varghese had met with the nation's cabinet secretary and heads of the Games organising committee to discuss the building quality concerns which extend to the athletes' village.

"The Indian authorities are, my understanding is, directing extra resources to ensure the village is completed as quickly as possible," Arbib told ABC television.

Australian medics are on their way to India to assess the Commonwealth Games' hygiene standards as well, Arbib said.

Security concerns surrounding the Games were also heightened in the wake of the shooting of two Taiwanese nationals on a tourist bus outside a mosque in Delhi.

Record monsoon rains, an outbreak of dengue fever, allegations of corruption and late venue construction have all added to suspicion by athletes, their families and Games officials from participating countries.

Australia discus world champion Dani Samuels is one of a number of top athletes that has pulled out of the Games, citing concerns over health and safety.

Commonwealth Games boss holds crisis talks with India’s PM

The head of the international organisation that controls the Commonwealth Games is today to arrive in Delhi for crisis talks with India's Prime Minister in an attempt to salvage a situation rapidly descending into chaos and farce.

With athletes due to start arriving in this monsoon-lashed city 24 hours from now, Mike Fennell has requested a meeting with Manmohan Singh to see if anything be done to ensure the completion of facilities and accommodation as competing nations weigh up whether to pull out.

Northern Ireland team officials are still pushing ahead with plans to compete at the troubled games despite growing fears over the event.

“I have spoken to several of our athletes and they are remaining positive, concentrating on their training and looking forward to competing. Their attitude is very much ‘let’s get on with it’,” a Northern Ireland team spokesperson said yesterday.

“Two of our senior team officials, Stewart Tosh and Terry Crothers, have arrived in Delhi. They will speak to other home nations who have been there for the last number of days and will also speak with the Commonwealth Games Federation and the CWG Delhi organising committee.

“We must stress that the health and safety of our athletes is paramount and we will not deny that the next 48 hours are critical. Team NI still plan to depart on Monday, September 27.”

England's Commonwealth team last night provided some welcome relief to the crisis-hit event in New Delhi by announcing the first competitors will fly out as planned today despite serious concerns remaining over safety and conditions.

Sir Andrew Foster, chairman of Commonwealth Games England (CGE), warned however that the “ultimate option” remained pulling out and some other team members could yet have their departures delayed.

But Sir Andrew added: “The residential accommodation is still some way short of what we need and require.

“We need to have an assurance from our people in Delhi that they bring it up to the standards that are required.”

A final decision would have to be made one way or another “in the next few days”.

Such is the level of concern over security, safety and hygiene that at least two competing nations have already delayed their teams' departures for India. The Scottish team had been due to fly to India today but postponed its flight by several days to give organisers a chance to “address the concerns”.

The Canadian team was also reported to have delayed its arrival, while Welsh officials gave organisers a deadline of last night to satisfy its worries and guarantee that “all venues and the Games Village are fit for purpose”.

No modelling career but Prachi has net gains

She could have sashayed on the ramp with designer clothes but Prachi Tehlan rejected all the modelling assignments that came her way and instead decided to run around on the wooden court wearing loose track pants while playing netball.

“People say I am good looking. It’s rather flattering. I say thank you but no thank you. No glamour business for me. I want to concentrate on academics and net ball. Right now, I want to concentrate on the Commonwealth Games,” she said. The chance to represent her country in the Commonwealth Games is something Prachi will not let pass for anything in the world. “I would love to play in front of the home crowd,” Prachi said.

The India women’s net ball captain could have become a basketball player but a torn ligament meant she couldn’t fulfil her prodigious talent. She turned to net ball after representing the India Under-19 basketball team when she was just 14 years old.

“When I walked into college one day, the director of sports asked me if I wanted to play netball. I was told that I was selected for the India camp. I had no idea what kind of sport it was and didn’t know the rules and regulations. It was a relief that there were others also who hadn’t heard of net ball,” Prachi added.

However, she has enjoyed playing the sport over the years. “I would say it is a feminine game. For me it was just about switching over from one ball game to another. I didn’t want to miss. I am happy that I took to net ball,” Prachi added. Her six-foot plus frame and her good looks have always made her popular. Prachi is quick to refer to her 500-plus friends on facebook.

“I remember signing my first autograph when I was in class IX. I was playing basketball in Kapurthala. I was mobbed after the game for autographs,” Prachi added.

She now wants to pursue her MBA and is confident that she will get admission in a top university in Canada because of her pedigree in netball. “Canada is one of the top countries in netball so I am sure I will get through,” Prachi said.

Net ball is not one of the marquee disciplines at the Commonwealth Games but Prachi is confident that there will be a good crowd to cheer the home team. “All my friends will be coming for sure. We have a feeling that we will also play in front of a packed house. There are some good looking girls playing, so we are sure to grab some attention,” Prachi added.

Roof portion collapses at Nehru stadium complex

A portion of false ceiling in the Commonwealth Games weightlifting venue in Delhi caved in on Wednesday, a day after 27 workers were injured when a footbridge collapsed near the same sports complex.

“It is minor. It is only a false ceiling coming down, or parts of it. It will be corrected now,” Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar, who oversees Games preparations, told CNN-IBN television.

“It is not something to be worried about ... it is not a major kind of collapse.”

Local TV stations reported that no one was injured. One local journalist near the scene said the roof collapsed on the area where jurors would seat near the weightlifting stage.

UK university staff, students to be volunteers in Commonwealth Games

A group of 14 students, including three Indians, and the staff of a United Kingdom university will act as volunteers in the upcoming Commonwealth Games to be held in the capital from October 3.

The group from Leeds Metropolitan University accompanying three athletes, who are participating in the CWG, will be given highly specific roles during the Games.

"It is a big opportunity for all the students as it encourages them to have an international experience and a rounded view of different cultures and environments," a University staff member told reporters here.

With apprehensions about the preparedness and security concerns coming from certain quarters, 20-year-old Tom Mathews, who is part of the team, says he has full faith in the security preparations by the CWG Organising Committee and the Indian government.

"I am sure the OC and the government have taken care of the security arrangements and we have no fears. I have full confidence in the arrangements," Mathews told PTI.

The team hasn't been given specific jobs as of now and are expecting to be briefed about it next week.

"No matter what the denoement of the Games, long term relations are often contingent upon such youth activities," the University release said.

The University claims to be having a fulfilling and successful foray into student volunteering in India.

In January 2008, on being ratified as the UK Education Partner for the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, the University had sent a group of student volunteers for gaining a global experience of sports.

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