In the first week of November last year, the Supreme Court described Delhi’s air as a “disaster”. This was right after Diwali, when the fallout of the festivities combined with particulate matter from tailpipes of vehicles and the haze from crop stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana to turn the city’s air into a dense soup of pollutants. But as the air improved — if a change from “severe” to “very poor” or “poor” on the Central Pollution Control Board index could be called that — air pollution lost its urgency in the agenda of both the Delhi government and the Centre, almost giving the impression that they had come to regard the apex court’s reprimand as a seasonal matter. After all, the court had admonished the city’s authorities a little after Diwali in 2015 as well. The authorities have now received an unseasonal censure: FIFA has decided that Delhi will not be hosting the marquee matches of the under-17 football World Cup that will be held in the country in October. Football’s governing body is worried about how the players will cope with the capital’s post-Diwali air.
But will this embarrass Delhi’s authorities? By all accounts, it was clear in February that FIFA was contemplating pulling the knockout matches out of Delhi due to pollution concerns. The city’s authorities did not do anything to convey that they have an action plan to deal with the post-Diwali smog, at least nothing to show that they were trying to deal with the problem on a war footing and allay the fears of football’s governing body. But then the authorities have always been as thick-skinned about disapproval by international bodies as they have been about the Supreme Court’s reprimands. Authorities, both at the Centre and the state, are known to scoff at WHO rankings which score Delhi poorly on air quality parameters. Compare this to China which declared a war on pollution after the International Olympic Committee expressed concerns over Beijing’s poor air quality, and primed itself in time for the 2008 Olympics.
The efficacy of the Chinese measures to control pollution after 2008 have been debated and Indian authorities often argue that Beijing is not out of the WHO list of polluted cities. They similarly have little regard for the State of Global Air report released last month, which showed India lost more people to air pollution compared to China in 2015. Given this record of obduracy, a loss of an Under-17 football event is unlikely to rankle much.