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India's inaugural F1 race: speeding past the poor

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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 billion people.

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 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.

BOOMING MARKETPLACE

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 Olympics.

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 sold.

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 check."

Situated in Greater Noida, 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 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 a movie?"

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.

EXTREMES

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 capable of.

"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 successful weekend.

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.

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