In all the years that cricket has been played on the Indian soil (and it has been played for quite many), it was a very unusual day on December 3rd. At the Feroz Shah Kotla ground in New Delhi, during a test match between India and Sri Lanka, the visiting Lankan team complained about debilitating weather conditions. The play was interrupted quite a few times, as the Lankans on the field had issues in terms of breathing and some of them were even started to vomit. As the day progressed, and the smog thickened, the anxiety of the Lankans increased. The match was stalled and when the Lankan fielders returned, they did so wearing anti-pollution masks. But that was not the end of it, even after the play resumed, the suffering of the Lankans did not seem to end, as bowlers Lahiru Gamage and Suranga Lakmal left the field mid-over with breathing difficulties. Finally, India declared its innings, so that the Lankans could breathe a bit easy in their dressing rooms.
The fact that air-pollution stalled an international match was truly staggering, this was really the first instance when such a thing had occurred. Last year in December a Ranji cricket match had to be canceled due to smog, so was a marathon event, but never before was an international event interrupted so.
For the past couple of years, Indians have come to terms with the fact that quite a few Indian cities are listed as the most polluted ones by the likes of World Health Organization. But this has forever been an internal issue, a sort of ghar ki baat. Thus, when the Lankans stepped on to the field with face-masks, the issue instantaneously became international. And it kick-started a full-blown debate; people and opinions were divided.
Sri Lanka’s coach Nic Pothas was heard saying that “there were oxygen cylinders in the dressing room. It is not normal for players to suffer in that way while playing the game. Under most circumstances, we wanted to play cricket. We just wanted to have some clarity on the safety of players.”
Meanwhile, BCCI president CK Khanna fired a salvo questioning the credibility of the Sri Lankan players by stating, “If 20,000 people in the stands did not have a problem and the Indian team did not face any issue, I wonder why Sri Lankan team made a big fuss?”
The divide was obvious; one hand people seemed to sympathize with visitors from the pristine island in the Indian ocean. While, a few others lambasted them for unsporting behavior and bringing shame to the country, the host. Which one of this was right?
Let’s try a scenario-based-metaphoric approach. Imagine, you are called over for a dinner at a friend’s house, a real chum of a guy. Now, in the post-dinnerly glow, while having a very serious conversation with him over matters that are of utmost importance like upcoming elections, how to evade tax, or even rising intolerance among women over seemingly harmless flirtations, the host passes a most obnoxious of fart that you can possibly ever imagine. The odor is like that of arsenic, ammonia and all that disgusting stink that you have ever known. Now, courtesy restricts you from scrounging your nose or making any obvious visible signs that your friend just let out a gas that would easily kill a few birds. But circumstances would coerce you to at least put envelop your nose with the fingers in sort of a tacit sign of how dour things are.
This is what has been the case. India has been caught with its fart out, a real sad-sad fart, that one could imagine. Shame-faced the nation was coerced to address the proverbial elephant in the room, the deteriorating air quality in its cities. The National Green Tribunal, an environmental body in India with no-teeth, came down heavily on the organizers, including the government.”Every newspaper has been carrying headline that the air pollution was going to be higher this week. Still, you took no action. Even the players were playing the match wearing masks. You should not have held the match if the air quality was so bad. Are people of Delhi supposed to bear this?” the bench said.
Even the PMO got involved in the drama, as a news report stated:
With the Sri Lankan cricket team’s dramatic protest against playing conditions highlighting the mounting embarrassment over Delhi’s pollution, a PMO-headed panel met on Monday and reviewed the need for more accurate real-time monitoring of air quality and measures to control stubble burning.
Whatever might be the take on the reaction of the Lankans, the air quality in New Delhi (and many other cities) is undeniably in a terrible state. On Sunday, when the test was interrupted, at least 7 out of 22 monitoring stations registered a “severe plus or emergency” level of air quality. The Air Quality Index (AQI) measured at 4 PM was 351 (on a scale of 0 to 500), and by 6 PM it reached 361. On Saturday, the AQI of Delhi was 331. At ITO, which is about two kilometer from Firoz Shah Kotla cricket stadium, the air quality was “very poor” with the major pollutant PM2.5 or particles with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers, was recorded 212 units — almost eight times the safe limit.
Pollution is considered severe plus or emergency when the readings are above 300 and 500 respectively. The corresponding prescribed standards are 60 and 100. An AQI between 0-50 is considered Good, 51-100 Satisfactory, 101-200 Moderate, 201-300 Poor, 301-400 Very Poor, and 401-500 Severe.
Just today morning, the PM10 levels were at 806, dubbed as hazardous.
Yet, come winter, for the past few years, Delhi’s air quality plummets to unsafe levels. There are many factors attributed for this, like burning of stubble/paddy residue in Punjab and Haryana, vehicular emissions, solid waste burning and so on. Every year, there’s much debate and deliberation, there are talks of actions, about projects, things like Odd-Even, yet nothing concrete materializes. As the weather patterns change, and the air ceases to be as toxic, all is forgotten and life continues as is.
Just like the Hindu Karmic cycle, Delhi’s air pollution awareness-action-neglect seems to be moving around cyclically. We all are talking about pollution, because it is hard to breathe.
So is there a way out, can we break this cycle? Can We?
Indeed, we can but it won’t be easy. Back in 2008, China was also caught with its pant down, during the Beijing Olympics. Dubbed as the most polluted games, many athletes not only threatened but even pulled out of the game due to health concerns. China that intended to showcase the games as a symbol of new found power, was now caught in a web of ignominy. The authorities tried almost everything, shutting down factories, restricting car usage and slowing down construction, high levels of pollutants persisted.
The resultant infamy forced China to take a series of steps, right from pushing renewable power to putting electric vehicles on the road. In fact, many experts opine that the Beijing incident was in many ways responsible for China to sign on the Paris Accord on Climate Change.
Similarly, India is at a cross-road. An aspiring global power, cannot have a scenario where its capital city is unlivable for a few months every year. That is just not an option. Hence, we need a comprehensive program, not just ad hoc measures like Odd-Even, stalling construction, banning fire-crackers or spraying water in the atmosphere. Liveability should not be a compromise, certainly not, when the means are close at hand. According to CSE, 63% of deaths in India are due to noncommunicable diseases, of which air pollution is a major factor. Thus, air pollution is not merely a smog that causes flight-delays, but it actually kills people, thousands and thousands of them. It is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed at the top-most levels.
In the end, rather than blaming the poor Lankans, we should actually be thanking Angelo Mathews and his team, for bringing the issue to our attention. Indeed, the air is terrible, and we should really be sorry for that.