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Foreign firms say they were stiffed by India Commonwealth Games officials

At least a dozen contractors who worked on October's Commonwealth Games say they're owed money by Indian sports authorities, totalling millions of dollars. Some games officials have been arrested.

April 09, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New Delhi — Howard & Sons, an Australian pyrotechnics company, worked overtime before the Commonwealth Games here in October to ensure that the opening and closing ceremony firework displays were a success.

When officials with India's Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee didn't help the firm with the paperwork needed to import, store and transport explosives, the company says, it was forced to ship them by air at significant expense.

When staff accreditation was delayed and the stadium opened late, the outfit went into overdrive to see to it that the fireworks were properly mounted on the stadium's rooftop and integrated with the music, which for the closing ceremony arrived just 24 hours before showtime.

Six months later, the family-owned company says it's still owed more than $300,000.

"They were delighted with our work at the time, said it was spectacular," said Andrew Howard, director of displays at the company. "And after all that, they haven't paid us according to the contract and haven't even responded to our queries. It's been unbelievably frustrating."

At least a dozen foreign contractors say they're still owed money by Indian sports authorities, millions of dollars in all.

"We're not that big," said Fedde Wildenbeest, finance director with Netherlands-based Infostrada Sports, a sports media company that says it's owed $618,000. "This is substantial money for us. It's the difference between making a profit and a loss for 2010."

Adding to their woes, some companies said they haven't been able to retrieve their equipment because, they say, the committee didn't file the right re-export paperwork with Indian customs, costing them hundreds of thousands more dollars.

"In other countries, organizing committee staff is highly competent, the best of the best, to make the city or country look better," said Ric Birch, chief executive with Spectak Australia, a production company that says it's still waiting for $325,000. "This was more like a gathering of top officials' family and friends, with some games thrown in."

Jarnail Singh, chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee, said that any delay of foreign goods in customs is the companies' fault for not moving faster, and that only a few foreign firms weren't paid in full. Any bills outstanding reflect deductions the committee has made for companies not honoring their contracts, he added.

The 12-day Commonwealth Games were meant to showcase India on the world stage, its answer to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Disorganization, inflated budgets, missed deadlines and a collapsing footbridge marred the preparations. But India ultimately pulled them off; some used the analogy of an Indian wedding coming together at the last minute.

Foreign companies said that's largely because of their frantic, behind-the-scenes efforts.

"We saved their bacon and are totally unappreciated for it," said Chris Kennedy, chairman of Australia-based Norwest Productions, which handled the sound system and says it has an unpaid bill for $960,000. "They'll never get an Olympics, not for 50 years. The Indian wedding standard doesn't work for an event supposedly watched by 2 billion people."

Ramanujam Sridhar, chief executive of Brand-Comm, a Bangalore marketing firm, said India's rather philosophical approach to deadlines and planning isn't always a comfortable fit with Western standards.

"If they know you're going to delay payments, larger, well-established companies are not going to come back," he said. "The rest of the world likes things to be organized, on time. It can ruin your reputation."

India is conducting an investigation amid suspicion that tens of millions of taxpayer money was siphoned off. So far, 10 people have been arrested, including seven organizing committee officials or former officials.

One foreign firm and an employee of another have been charged in the ongoing investigation: scoring specialist Swiss Timing and a top official at Nussli India, an Indian-Swiss events contractor.

If investigators have questions about their operations, foreign companies said, that's valid, but they decry what they see as unsubstantiated reports in the Indian press that they're overpaid and corrupt.

"Our budget for this was way below other world events," said Greg Bowman, head of Australia's Great Big Events, which coordinates music and anthems at sports venues. He says the company is owed more than $100,000.

"I can't speak for others," Bowman said. "But everything we did was through public tenders, advertised online, under rigorous procedures. We operate all over the world and would never risk anything with funny money."

As frustration has mounted, some companies have considered legal action, though they concede that a case filed in India's notably creaky justice system could take years. Others, such as Infostrada, are resorting to more unusual tactics.

"We're now writing a letter to the queen of England," Wildenbeest said. "She's, after all, patron of the games."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana of The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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