A few days before the Delhi Half Marathon, an annual event that attracts thousands of enthusiasts, the Indian Medical Association, a national voluntary organisation of doctors, petitioned Delhi’s High Court seeking an order to postpone the race. The IMA was of the opinion that holding such an event, which involved thousands of people running outdoors in a city whose air is alarmingly polluted would be unhealthy and potentially hazardous. The organisers, including Delhi’s government, assured the court that they had the requisite “precautions” in place and the race went on as scheduled. Nearly 35,000 people ran during the event that took place on November 19. On that day air pollution in the city touched levels deemed to be “very poor” by the air quality index that India uses to measure air pollution. At the time that the race took place, suspended fine particulate matter in Delhi’s air, particularly in the central part of the city where the route of the marathon lies, was more than eight times what the World Health Organisation (WHO) prescribes as safe. The measure of finest particulate matters, PM 2.5 (that is, particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less), which are considered the most hazardous for health, in the air that morning was more than 200 µg/m3. The WHO’s safety limit is 25 µg/m3.
The impact that the run has had on the health of people who spent several hours outdoors breathing in unhealthy air is well nigh impossible to quantify but the event demonstrates the innate callousness that characterises our attitude towards something as serious as pollution. The half marathon’s organisers, sponsors and partners, included not only the title sponsor, Indian telecoms major Airtel, but also multinational corporations such as Puma, Seiko, and Nestle, an airline, Jet Airways, a hotel chain, Le Meridien, media groups, Times of India, and Star TV, and even a medical partner, Max Healthcare. The organisers who had assured the court that they had taken “precautions” didn’t share with the public what these were and, in any case air quality levels remained at unhealthy levels throughout the duration of the event. At 200 µg/m3 or more, doctors recommend that adults and children should avoid outdoor cardio-vascular exercises. Under the aegis of the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, backed by a list of heavyweight partners and sponsors, 35,000 people did the opposite: they raced and exposed their respiratory systems to foul, unhealthy air.
The following morning Indian newspapers carried congratulatory reports about the half marathon with little or no mention of the health hazards that people may have exposed themselves to. By then, the stories on air pollution in India’s capital city had slipped away from the front pages of newspapers and other media; and the public discourse had also moved on. Early this month, pollution levels in Delhi were at their very worse. At one point PM 2.5 had reached a horrific 1000 µg/m3 before settling at 590 (remember: the WHO safety limit is 25 µg/m3). The media, including those who carried gushing reports the day after the marathon, were exercised then. Headlines screamed alarm; fingers were pointed at “incompetent” authorities; and dire predictions were made about what would happen to Delhi’s citizenry. It took very little for that furore to die down. As soon as the air quality index for Delhi dropped from “Hazardous” (300+) to “Very Unhealthy” (201-300), everyone calmed down. “Very unhealthy” air quality was now the new normal for Delhi.
The problem with the concern about air pollution in Delhi, a phenomenon that resurfaces annually towards the end of the year when temperatures begin to fall, is that it is fitful. It peaks when the problem reaches alarming proportions and then ebbs as soon as things improve marginally. That is also the reason why a lasting solution for Delhi’s pollution problem will likely remain elusive. Take the example of the Delhi Half Marathon. What if, instead of going along with the organisers who promised some “precautions”, sponsors and partners had withdrawn their support to the event; if newspapers had run advisories warning people to stay off the roads because of air pollution; and the government had stepped in to postpone the event? Of course, there would be the financial consequences—money already spent on organising such a massive event would be lost; as would be advertising revenues and marketing opportunities. What about the gains? Such a move would have kept the focus on the problem at hand, a problem that is not going to go away without long-term efforts at solving it.
Governments—both at the state and the Centre—have been grossly incompetent at tackling Delhi’s air pollution. The onus now falls on the stakeholders most affected by the problem: Delhi’s citizens, both individuals as well as corporate. A plethora of factors cause Delhi’s air quality to remain poor and below safety levels for most of the year. These include rise in vehicular emissions; un-zoned and rampant construction activity; uncontrolled growth of factories and other commercial establishments; and a grossly incapacitated public transport system. Most or all of these are issues that only governments can solve. But in order to hold governments accountable, it is the public that has to step up the pressure. The Delhi Half Marathon was an event with great potential to leverage such pressure. Not potential of the kind that translates into full-page advertisements that newspapers lap up, or marketing and promotional benefits that sponsors and partners hope for. But a potential message that a unanimous boycott would have unleashed: signaling to the world that air pollution makes Delhi unfit to hold events such as a marathon. Jolts of that kind may be necessary for the authorities to get serious about tackling Delhi’s pollution problem and not wait till PM2.5 again breaches the hazardous level.