India arrests chief organizer of scandal-plagued Commonwealth Games

The spiralling investigation into India’s troubled Commonwealth Games landed its chief organizer behind bars on Monday — a long-anticipated arrest after months of allegations and cries of corruption over the event.

NEW DELHI — The spiralling investigation into India’s troubled Commonwealth Games landed its chief organizer behind bars on Monday — a long-anticipated arrest after months of allegations and cries of corruption over the event.

India had hoped the two-week international sporting competition in October would highlight its rapid development and boost its role on the world stage.

Instead, it was deeply embarrassed by accusations of graft, construction delays and cost overruns as the games’ budget ballooned by billions of dollars beyond the US$412 million price tag organizers initially estimated.

Reports about filthy athletes’ accommodations, unfinished construction projects and security woes further battered the country’s image and encouraged scorn against the organizing committee chief, Suresh Kalmadi, who had promised a spectacle to rival the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

On Monday, the Central Bureau of Investigation — the Indian equivalent to the FBI in the U.S. — took Kalmadi himself into custody after questioning him at its headquarters.

The arrest came as little surprise amid the mounting inquiry, during which Kalmadi was fired as parliamentary secretary for the governing Congress Party.

He had kept his organizing committee job while the investigation continued, but on Monday was suspended from Congress as the party sought to limit damage from his arrest.

“Let there be no ambiguity,” Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said, “appropriate, demonstrable and visible action will be taken.”

Investigators said the 67-year-old Kalmadi — the highest-ranking official arrested in the probe — has been charged with conspiracy, accused of favouring a Swiss company in the purchase of equipment for timing and scoring events, bureau spokeswoman Dharini Mishra said.

His aides Lalit Bhanot and V.K. Verma were arrested last month in the same case.

The bureau said the government was bilked out of 1.41 billion rupees ($31 million), paid to Swiss Timing Ltd. for equipment available from a Spanish company for less.

It said competition for the contract had been wrongfully restricted, with no clear criteria for selecting the winning bids and alleged coercion and threats against those making the final decision.

It was not immediately clear if Swiss Timing was also accused of alleged wrongdoing.

Swiss Timing and Olympics sponsor Omega are both subsidiaries of Swiss watchmaking giant Swatch Group.

Swiss Timing is based in Corgemont, near the capital Bern, and says on its website it provides “official timekeeping services at the Olympic Games for the Swatch Group.”

In addition, Swiss Timing adds, it “remains active on behalf of Group brands at numerous European and world championships and major multi-sport events” including the Commonwealth Games.

Calls and emails to the International Olympic Committee and Swiss Timing were not immediately returned Monday, a national holiday in Switzerland.

Kalmadi is due to appear in court today for a custody hearing.

His arrest leaves a vacuum in India’s Olympic Association, which he has led for about 15 years. The Sports Ministry called Monday for his immediate replacement.

Investigators also arrested two more officials Monday — Surjit Lal and A.S.V. Prasad — and said more suspects would be taken into custody in coming days.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party — which had claimed millions were siphoned off by companies run by relatives of Games officials — said Kalmadi’s arrest would not have happened unless investigators had “certain proof.”

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” the party’s president, Nitin Gadkari, told reporters in Mumbai, according to Press Trust of India.

Just weeks before the Games, the government placed several ministers on Kalmadi’s organizing committee after an audit body identified concerns over bidding procedures and inflated costs. And within days of the Oct. 14 closing ceremony, officials launched a laborious investigation with raids on committee members’ offices and homes.

There have since been numerous arrests, and a government report last month said delays, inefficiency and waste had cost the country $355 million.

The Swiss Timing deal was just one of many that has been called into question. As early as November, investigators filed their first lawsuits against two London-based companies — A M Car-Van Hire Ltd. and A M Films — involved in the Queen’s Baton Relay ceremony held a year before the Delhi Games.

Allegations of funding irregularities for that event led to the arrest of top committee members T.S. Darbari and Sanjay Mahendroo, and a warrant for the companies’ director that accused him of cheating and colluding with Games officials to provide service at exorbitant rates justified through forged documents or false price quotes.