SALARPUR India Oct 25 India will hold its first
Grand Prix this weekend - a glitzy coming-out party for an
emerging economic juggernaut that is lost on villagers like
Meera, standing by a fetid pond near the brand new Formula One
race track with a child covered in warts.
"What is this Formula One? I learnt only recently that some
of our land was acquired for it," said Meera, a mother of four
who goes by one name. The floodlights of the $400 million F1
circuit that can hold 100,000 roaring spectators could be seen
in the distance.
Seen by its supporters as an example of how India's private
companies can organise complex, hi-tech and global events, the
Grand Prix has re-ignited India's perennial questioning of how
far the country should go down the globalisation road.
For critics, it is an example of skewed economic growth, an
elitist event where even the cheapest tickets are unaffordable
for most people and an event that has no roots among India's 1.2
For the moment, that questioning is lost in a media frenzy.
Boosted by Lady Gaga, Bollywood and cricket stars, the Grand
Prix may help India regain its self confidence after a
scandal-plagued Commonwealth Games sparked headlines mocking the
Asian power's arrival on the world stage.
Run by Jaypee Sports International, a subsidiary of the
Jaypee Group construction and infrastructure giant, the F1 event
has come in on schedule with almost none of the cost overruns,
corruption and shoddy construction that plagued the
government-run Commonwealth Games last year.
"The world's perception of India is going to change after
the Grand Prix and people will forget what happened because of
the Commonwealth Games," Jaiprakash Gaur, founding chairman of
the Jaypee Group, told local media.
The event is also just the latest example of international
sports bodies ensuring they get a foot in this booming Asian
marketplace with a huge advertising base of millions. India has
already attracted the attention of top European football clubs.
Nevertheless, India is playing catch-up with its fellow
emerging market rivals. China held a successful Olympics while
Brazil will hold the next edition of the football World Cup -
and Russia follows four years later. Brazil also has the 2016
But what price this sovereign branding game?
The extravagance of the event and questions about land
seizures to make way for the circuit have sparked criticism.
Critics have cited it as an example of misplaced priorities in a
country where malnutrition rates rival sub-Sarahan Africa.
The cheapest tickets are about 2,500 rupees (about $50) -
about half the monthly wage of a cleaner. The most expensive
corporate boxes go for about $200,000 - and nearly all have been
When the event was being planned in 2009, then-sports
minister M.S. Gill dismissed it as "expensive entertainment."
"In many ways it epitomises what is wrong with this
country," said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a political commentator.
"One section of India would like to tell the rest of the
world about how fast growing we are. Just come here and see the
inequality and poverty on the ground and you get a reality
Situated in western Uttar Pradesh state, about an hour's
drive from New Delhi, the Formula One track is connected by a
new highway through the capital's booming outskirts of anonymous
office blocks and cement skeletons of soon-to-be-built colleges.
Within the circuit grounds, where shiny Mercedes Benz
display cars are parked, poor Indian women used brushes and
their hands to sweep dust and stones from an access road, their
children playing nearby.
In nearby Salarpur village, Meera, who is illiterate and can
only guess her age, held a sick child in her arms. He has
suffered malaria twice. Rubbish lay in ponds of stagnant water.
A young calf grazed on garbage.
"I don't understand this concept of cars racing for
entertainment," she said. "People pay money to watch this? Like
Nearby, workers sprayed the manicured lawns around the F1
track with water in last minute preparations. Meera, who has
electricity for four hours a day, must walk half an hour to the
nearest water pump.
For the moment, though, the media focus is on speed and
glamour, and Force India, India's first Formula One team, which
has a slogan of "Raising The Flag."
The 5.14 km (3.19 mile) track is touted to enable the F1
calendar's second highest average speed after Italy's Monza. Its
1.2 km straight is one of the longest in Formula One, aimed at
encouraging high speeds and overtaking.
The grandstand, with seats coloured in the Indian flag
colours of saffron, white and green, features an undulating roof
that can be seen from miles around.
There is much focus on the track itself, with safety
concerns paramount after the deaths of a two-time Indianapolis
500 winner and an Italian motorcyclist in races this month.
But a successfully held event would confirm what supporters
hope will be an example of India finally showing what it is
"This comes after a bad year for India," said V.
Ravichandar, chairman of Feedback Consulting in Bangalore, which
advises multinationals. He was referring to a string of
corruption scandals that hit foreign investments into India amid
growing instability of the Congress-led coalition government.
"To have an event that goes smoothly will show that the
private sector is capable for pulling off events like this."
But controversies may hang over the event even after a
The Grand Prix will take place in a state governed by a
Dalit or "Untouchable" leader called Mayawati. She has raised a
storm of criticism for building parks worth tens of millions of
dollars in honour of her party. The state is one of the poorest
and most corrupt in India.
Questions have been raised about why Mayawati granted
organisers exemption from an entertainment tax. Several hundred
farmers plan to protest what they say was the seizure of their
land at rock bottom prices by the state government.
"This is just another way of India patting itself on the back
and saying we have arrived in terms of size and growth." said
Suhel Seth, a popular marketing and management expert.
"Will investors get excited? No."
(Additional reporting by Annie Banerji and Amlan Chakraborty;
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)