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A journey in time

The success of the Afro-Asian Games lay in structured and coordinated functioning, writes A. JOSEPH ANTONY

Photos: Mohd Yousuf

Sabyasachi Ghosh

THE SIXTY days it took to successfully stage the Afro-Asian Games (AAG), enabled the country secure a six-year time-span to conduct the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. It will be no exaggeration to state that the assembling of the former British colonies in New Delhi in 2010 has become a reality thanks to the benchmarks set during the Hyderabad games.

Even Indian Olympic Association bosses have acknowledged Hyderabad's contribution to the cause of the Commonwealth bid. Little is however known of what went on behind the scenes in the race against time to host the AAG. The Director-General, Ratan P. Watal, and the Special Officer, Sabyasachi Ghosh, in a chat with The Hindu retrace the steps that made the first Afro-Asian Games a success.

The Union Cabinet's clearance of Rs. 103 crores came only in the third week of August, although it was fairly certain by the first week of that month that the Afro-Asian Games would go to Hyderabad. Much credit should go to R. Bhattacharya, Resident Commissioner of Andhra Pradesh at New Delhi, says Watal.

Right from speeding up sanctions to the disbursal of the huge amounts involved, from obtaining Air Traffic Control clearance for the spectacular fireworks to firearms permits, from visas free of cost to their issue on arrival, the Delhi-based officer, who set up an AAG cell there, seemed on overdrive almost all of the time.

The setting up of a stand-alone AAG secretariat at the Greenlands Guest House and its availability free of cost was not only a boon but gave the event a distinct identity, recalls Ghosh. The first step was the formation of a registered society, the major constituents being the governments of India and Andhra Pradesh and the Indian Olympic Association, with the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, its Chairman.

The futile bid to host the said games in Delhi in 2001 served as the framework against which the society based its assessments. The errors from that experience were to be eliminated and systems put in place that would really work. The sheer magnitude of the task ahead seemed daunting enough.

Ratan P. Watal

The African continent not being well connected, an accreditation committee was despatched to Abuja, Nigeria where the All African Games had been held. Simultaneously, the online accreditation process was kicked off too. The timely flow of funds from the Centre necessitated a delicate balancing of priorities. The organisation was broken down to small bits, each task defined, the financial parameters and timelines set, recalls Ghosh.

Everything was structured to ensure there was no duality of roles, while the stress was on co-ordination. What gave every visiting official confidence was the state of the art account and audit systems, both of them information technology enabled. At the click of a button, the exact financial status was before one's eyes, Watal says. Paper work being minimal was a striking feature.

For such a huge team, communication was essential. A 24-hour call centre with interpreters was set up and a closed user group (CUG) with 1500 mobile phones pressed into service. If there was a circular from the DG to the entire operational staff, the message would be conveyed in minutes, thanks to extensive but highly cost-effective use of the short messaging service (SMS). The networking encompassed every stadium, hotel, media centre besides all committees from transport to reception at airports.

Apart from the best of technology, the mammoth team was connected in a very human way, recounts Watal. Not only had he to co-ordinate with political bosses but go along with officers senior to him in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Motivating everyone from higher-ups to the smallest volunteer was a task he managed by inculcating a sense of pride.

The drive had become such a success that colleagues grumbled they had not been included. An awareness had come about that those involved were very much a part in the making of history, recollects Ghosh. Here was Hyderabad hosting a multi-disciplinary, transcontinental event with over 50 nations in the fray. Before long, the team worked as a closely-knit unit and often quite informally. Convenors of the various committees were bureaucrats, who were given a free hand to choose the men they wanted. Thus man-management contributed substantially to the overall efficiency. A string of highly informative booklets not only kept each of the organisers connected to the other, but enabled access to them even for participants and delegates.

Nothing was left for the 11th hour, although the last-minute lighting up of the major thoroughfares on the eve of the games had the sceptics wondering if everything was on track. So meticulously had everything been worked out that the daily teleconferences with the Chief Minister got over sooner than the time allotted for it. The incessant rain a couple of days before the competitions, failed to dampen the enthusiasm. Earlier, the attempt on the CM's life was a source of worry but only doubled the vigour of the organisers.

Contrary to popular perception, it was not only the opening and closing ceremonies that mattered but also the actual conduct of events. Not only were Commonwealth Games organisers closely watching the goings-on, so also were delegates from the Doha Asian Games and officials from China, gearing up for the Olympics.What participants will fondly remember is the human touch that went into the AAG. From the time a participant deplaned, regardless of nationality or tongue, the reception committee welcomed him, completed the accreditation in 15 minutes and seated him in a bus that took him to a hotel, where he was even shown to his room! A first for the AAG was the landing of a commercial jumbo jet in Hyderabad.

While the Hyderabad National Games may have been superior in terms of quantity, the AAG was certainly an improvement as regards quality of the conduct. The sheer magnitude of the latter event and its conformity to international standards will carve a niche for it in the annals of mega event management.

One indication of the popularity of the games was the brisk sale of AAG memorabilia. What the AAG will be remembered most for is the amalgamation of government departments with non-governmental bodies, where the processes were given prominence without losing sight of the product.

A word about the two men, who mattered most, would not be out of place. Ratan P.Watal was Private Secretary to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao apart from putting in a four-year stint with the International Monetary Fund. On a Union Government posting, he was Director of the Department of Economic Affairs. He was also actively involved with the conduct of the Festivals of India. Never in his 25 years has he seen such synergy as witnessed at the AAG. Sabyasachi Ghosh served as Special Officer, Hyderabad National Games, where he was in charge of infrastructure works. The expertise he gained from that experience came more than handy for the AAG. A Hyderabadi at heart, he has played badminton at the national level and acknowledges the backing he received from the two women in his life - his wife and little daughter.

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